There’s an old adage that says something to the effect that the only thing worse than training employees and having them quit is not training them and having them stay. 

At the risk of bringing a bumper-sticker answer to a complex issue, I think this illustrates the task ahead for central Illinois as we compete for the best of tomorrow’s workers. 

A look into the future brings a cause for alarm. By 2008, there will be a 22 percent increase in jobs requiring at least some college education, but the numbers of new college graduates will not replace retiring baby boomers. And experts predict that two years after that, the pool of workers will be about 8 percent short of the number of job openings. 

Focusing on the Midwest—and we’re as Midwest as an area can be—the figures point to anything but a bed of roses. Writing in the Federal Reserve Bank’s Chicago Fed Letter, Richard Mattoon cited figures that show while the area has a higher than average percentage of workers with high school diplomas, it has a lower percentage of college graduates than other parts of the country. 

Disturbing, too, is his findings of “a tendency for outmigration…led by more educated individuals…and a below the national average ability to attract international immigrants.” 

The area also lags behind other parts of the country in attracting college graduates, but it’s above average in retaining those educated here. One expert urges more attention to a “grow your own” strategy through educational opportunities. 

Hope Long of the Workforce Development Department brought this down to a central Illinois perspective when she wrote recently that “Central Illinois must position itself to be competitive in the new ‘knowledge economy.’” She echoed experts who note the successful and valuable worker of the future will “need to be flexible, creative and have the capacity to quickly acquire new skills and knowledge.” 

The national numbers seem to bear out her warning that the area “has no other choice but to tackle this challenge or it will not survive.” 

Much has been written about the need to build the skills of the area workforce to meet tomorrow’s work requirements. And some good minds are hard at work here to build the skilled and experienced workforce we’ll need. That work deserves the strong support of the business community, which must not only influence education and training policy, but actively engage in business-education partnerships. 

That means interacting with high school counselors in setting curriculum, and it means investing in current employees to enhance their skills and value to your business. 

All well and good, but I tend to agree with the body of experts who see successful economic development as the foundation necessary for workforce development. 

A recent Chamber of Commerce writing noted that “communities that are most effective at the recruitment, retention and development of talent are the communities that are going to be successful in terms of economic development.” 

To be sure, one isn’t possible without the other. But I do want to point out that we shouldn’t have the back-burner mentality of “what can I do about it?” when the term “workforce development” is raised. 

It is, according to one Chamber writer, more than hiring and training: it’s transportation, health care, and childcare. And a Boston Federal Reserve Bank study showed four factors help determine where college graduates will locate: 

In other words, workforce development is the quality of life an area provides, and I’d argue that central Illinois is rich, and hopefully getting richer, on those points above. It’s the riverfronts, the river, Bradley University, ICC, O’Brien Field, the symphony, Wildlife Prairie State Park, a uniquely local restaurant…you name it. 

In fact, it might help to make your own list of things that contribute to our quality of life—and then support the items on that list. IBI