QUINCY – As chair of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, Lt. Governor Sheila Simon will host a rural listening post in Quincy on Thursday to hear from rural leaders, citizens and employers about how to strengthen educational opportunities and workforce development in the region.
The public forum will be held at the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Quincy at 10 a.m. and is the last in a statewide series of rural listening posts hosted by the Rural Affairs Council and the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University. Feedback from the forums will be collected by the IIRA and used to develop a strategic plan for the council and member agencies that will be released in July.
The listening posts give participants the opportunity to provide input on a variety of issues including business climate, health care, education, infrastructure and quality of life. The importance of bridging the skills gap between prospective employees and employers has been a common theme, Simon said.
“To keep pace with our changing economy, Illinois needs 60 percent of working-age adults to have a college degree or credential by 2025,” Simon said. “But in rural areas, only a quarter of working-age adults have a two-year degree or higher. As a state, we need to make better connections between employers, high schools, community colleges and public universities so that students have clear pathways from school to work and from college to career.”
Among other listening post topics, participants will discuss the challenges and opportunities that exist for rural Illinois citizens to work in manufacturing as those jobs become more technologically advanced. A survey by the Manufacturing Institute found that five percent of manufacturing jobs nationwide are going unfilled, which adds up to nearly 28,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in Illinois.
Westermeyer Industries in Bluffs is one example. Westermeyer, which manufactures steel pressure vessels used in air conditioners and refrigerators, has struggled to find qualified workers to fill welder and machinist positions, which require welding, machining, programming and general mechanical skills. The company has partnered with John Wood Community College in Quincy to develop a satellite training facility in Bluffs that offers welding classes.
“Needing to find a source of trained employees, our company is fortunate to be working with John Wood Community College to train welders in our own facility,” said Gary Westermeyer, president and founder of Westermeyer Industries. “We have already seen the benefits of in house training. We intend to continue with this program and thereby home-grow our talent base.”
The need for welders is one that is shared by other manufacturers in the region according to listening post participant Jim Mentesti, the president of the Great River Economic Development Foundation, which has worked closely with workforce development organizations to identify specific training needs and promote opportunities in manufacturing to community members.
“Manufacturing remains a vital component of our region’s economy,” Mentesti said. “That’s why JWCC, along with the Workforce Investment Board of Western Illinois and our organization is in constant communication with our area manufacturers to help identify their needs and create custom programs that will help manufacturers grow their businesses as well as put individuals in our region on the fast-track to well-paying manufacturing jobs.”
To ensure workers have the skills needed for 21st Century jobs, Simon is pursuing education reform that aims to improve college and career readiness in math. This included Senate Bill 3244, amendment 2, which authorizes the Illinois State Board of Education to design and recommend curriculum models that illustrate how to teach state standards in middle and high school math. It has passed the Senate and awaits a vote in the House.
Rural listening posts were held by Lt. Governor George Ryan across Illinois in 1986 and led to creation of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council the following year. In 1998, 2000 and 2007, the Rural Affairs Council, the IIRA and the Illinois Rural Partners, a non-profit, organized listening posts across Illinois to directly gather input from rural citizens. The 25-member council is comprised of citizen members and representatives from various state agencies, institutions and organizations that impact rural Illinois.
For more information on the rural listening posts, please visit www.ltgov.illinois.gov.