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Grant-funded $14.2M IT workforce program aims to address sector’s rapidly growing employment needs

Participants in the IT Workforce Accelerator program had the chance to talk with representatives from around a dozen Greater Peoria IT businesses during a job fair Tuesday at Illinois Central College's East Peoria campus. The $14.2 million grant-funded program aims to get 1,000 people trained and hired into IT jobs over a three-year period.
Joe Deacon
Participants in the IT Workforce Accelerator program had the chance to talk with representatives from around a dozen Greater Peoria IT businesses during a job fair Tuesday at Illinois Central College's East Peoria campus. The $14.2 million grant-funded program aims to get 1,000 people trained and hired into IT jobs over a three-year period.

The demand for more workers in the information technology sector is growing rapidly everywhere, including Greater Peoria.

A grant-funded partnership between Illinois Central College, Bradley University and Eureka College is helping people get the IT skills they need for these jobs, and the two-year-old program is already exceeding goals.

Andrea Larson of Peoria Heights participated in the IT Workforce Accelerator program based at ICC. She says the opportunity was a big step in advancing on her chosen career path.

“I wanted to get in IT, and I saw a little gap in my knowledge of IT. So I decided to take one of the courses at the accelerator program,” Larson said. “It really helped me understand the operations and IT part of my business, and I'm now currently employed in a local IT company.”

Funded by a $14.2 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration in September 2022, the workforce accelerator program offers no-cost training with a target of getting 1,000 people hired or retrained for IT jobs over a three-year period.

Don Shafer, the executive director of the IT Workforce Accelerator, says participants get the knowledge and skills they need to get a certification or micro-credential to work in IT or related fields.

“Prior to the grant being written, Illinois Central College, and Eureka, and Bradley got together and then went to the business community and said, ‘OK, we have an opportunity to provide no-cost training in a sector of the economy that is most needed in this area. What's that sector?’ And the answer was, ‘We don't have centralized training in IT,’” Shafer said.

He says that since the program launched, they've gotten plenty of positive feedback from employers.

“That need has been verified and number of times, as we've gone out to the business community with this program and them saying, ‘This is great. We've had a need for IT training, but just didn't know where to get it in a basis that it would fit the schedules and the workforce for what we've got to get into IT.’”

By the end of 2023, the IT Workforce Accelerator had received more than 800 participants and exceeded its goal for credential completion by 20%. As of now, more than 1,300 individuals have registered for classes since the program began.

“We have started, obviously, getting individuals that have completed certifications (and) we are beyond our goal on where we thought we'd be there in terms of the totals that that we were forecasting,” Shafer said. “We were slightly under on the jobs, but we've got a reporting that that'll be as of March 31 and we are highly optimistic about where we're going to be with that in terms of where we need to be jobs-wise versus the goals.”

Anthony Mini is President and Chief Information Security Officer at Pearl Technology, an IT firm located in Peoria Heights. Mini says job growth in the IT sector is surging, both locally and nationally.

“In the last even two years, with the kind of news of ransomware and everything like that, we've heard some job numbers of a million cybersecurity jobs all the way to – just this morning, I heard – 3 million cybersecurity jobs that are opening,” he said. “So that supply and demand has just exploded.”

Mini says there are several different kinds of IT jobs that can appeal to a variety of interests.

“Just in general, IT enables a lot of businesses. So there's jobs way outside of cybersecurity, whether you want to do sales or project management,” Mini said. “I think a lot of people think about cybersecurity as just hands-on keyboard programming, and they get mystified by all that.

“But there's a lot more to it. If you have a specific skill set, whether it's kind of accounting and auditing, there's roles for that with policy and governance. And there’s a lot more.”

On Tuesday, ICC hosted a job fair at its East Peoria campus to give program participants a chance to connect with employers. Representatives from around a dozen businesses were on hand to show what positions they have to offer.

Among them was Dusty Langdon, the human resources and staffing manager at Basic ITS in East Peoria.

“The main thing that I personally love about the job fair in the IT accelerator program is that businesses get a chance to actually put back into the community in a way they don't typically get to,” she said. “Because you're investing in your community, you get to work with people who might have otherwise not had the chance to be with your other employees, with your clients.”

Langdon says the IT Workforce Accelerator program has eased the delay in getting new employees up to speed.

“We have clients and other companies that are struggling to fill these entry-level positions because there's just not enough people coming out of college with the availability or the initiative to have that on their resume to go into the positions,” Langdon said. “These people are able to fill gaps in our employment that typically you'd have a manager having to do some of this work, because there's nobody to fill the position.

“The accelerator program has had the opportunity to get people into these kind of bootcamp courses where we get them into the workforce quicker. So our needs are being met quicker, because these guys are out here, taking the classes, getting their certifications.”

Shafer says it's crucial to provide more IT training opportunities as the sector's workforce needs continue to increase.

“Our goal of 1,000 jobs over a three-year time period would make a significant dent, but the actual job needs over a three- to five-year time period for this region is significantly above that. That's just what we felt we could do with the dollars that we were getting was to get to that 1,000 goal,” he said.

“As IT changes, which it does rapidly, the other side of that is that the skill set – what you learned two years ago, may not apply to what you need to know today. So there's that upskilling aspect to this as well. It's not only the new jobs; it's the retained jobs.”

Larson says she would encourage anyone considering a career in the IT field to take advantage of the workforce accelerator.

“I think it's just such a great opportunity for the area, and for professionals that want a more stable job and want that income,” she said. “The fact that that is provided without an extra cost – if you have the will to do it, and if you want to advance your career, then it is the perfect opportunity to do it now.”

Shafer says the IT Workforce Accelerator has proven to be a “terrific collaborative effort” between the three institutions, and that more than 230 companies have placed individuals in the program to bolster their IT skills.

He said he’s optimistic that the benefits of initiative will generate momentum toward keeping the program going.

“I believe that when we show the value of this to the community, that there will be an opportunity for us to look for funding within the community, potentially through the business community or through other aspects of other grant opportunities that are available within the community, foundational or otherwise,” he said.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.