Bashir Ali is the director of Workforce Development for the City of Peoria, a position he has held since 1987. His department administers a multi-million-dollar workforce development system for the City of Peoria and Marshall, Peoria, Stark, and Woodford counties. It also provides primary staff support to the Central Illinois Workforce Development Board.

Ali has been active in local, state, and national workforce and economic development organization. He’s vice president of the Illinois Workforce Partnership and chairs its Future Trends Committee. He also serves on the boards of the National Workforce Association and Economic Development Council for Central Illinois.

He and his wife, Rita, have four children.

Tell us about your background, schools attended, family, etc.

I grew up on the south side of Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s. My younger brother and I were blessed to grow up in a family where character, religious values, and education were stressed by our parents. These values were also reinforced in our extended family and community environment. I attended the Chicago public schools and later went on to graduate from the University of Illinois at Champaign/ Urbana with a degree in architecture. My wife, Rita, and I have four adult daughters and eight grandchildren.

What influenced your decision to change careers from an architectural engineer to working as a director in public organizations?

After college, I worked in several capacities as an architectural engineer for about eight years. I was also active as a volunteer in community-based organizations. As a young engineer, I was caught up in the economic downturn of the early 1980s and as a result, was laid-off from my job as plant engineer for a lift truck manufacturing company in Danville. During that time, I was vice chairman of a community-based job training organization in Danville. Ironically, the organization had just lost its executive director, and I was asked to work as a consultant to the board for several months. As a result, the board asked me to stay on as the new executive director.

Shortly thereafter, the lift truck company called me back to my engineering job. The brief experience working with people to develop their skills and change lives helped me to make a career decision to remain as a workforce development professional. Later on, I was recruited by the local community college to be the assistant director of its new Job Training department. After about four years at the Danville Area Community College, I took a position with the City of Peoria as the director of its Private Industry Council (PIC). A change in federal legislation in 1998 brought about the creation of Workforce Development boards and regional one-stop systems. Today, I serve as director of Workforce Development for the City of Peoria.

What are your job responsibilities as director of Workforce Development? How many are on staff?

As the director, I oversee a department of about 30 professional staff. Our department provides the staff support for the Central Illinois Workforce Development Board. The board seeks to coordinate workforce resources to assist individuals and businesses to attain their full potential in a 21st century knowledge economy. Our department also provides the staff support for a four-county regional workforce system, in conjunction with about a dozen partner agencies, and administers a number of federal and state grants to support the local system.

Tell about the development of the Workforce Network. How is it responding to the community’s needs?

The four-county workforce system is called the Workforce Network. The Workforce Network began as an experiment from the Office of Governor Thompson in 1989. The purpose of the original pilot was to begin to better coordinate the many publicly funded workforce programs and services. In 1995, the Workforce Network was recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor as one of 10 model “one-stop” initiatives in the country. Since that time, the network has received state and national recognition. In 1998, federal legislation was created to formally establish local workforce networks throughout the country. The U.S. Department of Labor also created a national system and named it America’s Workforce Network.

The Workforce Network seeks to provide workforce development services to individuals and businesses in a one-stop environment. Partners include about a dozen state and local workforce development and education organizations. The local four-county, one-stop system has a regional hub facility located at One Technology Plaza. This model facility features state-of-the-art technology and workforce development professionals to assist both individuals and businesses. The Workforce Network offers the region’s most comprehensive array of services for individuals seeking to plan their careers, upgrade their skills, or find employment. The network also serves businesses, offering them the ability to recruit new workers, match them to their jobs, or upgrade the skills of incumbent workers.

What are the workforce issues facing our community today? How are they being addressed? Are our needs the same as others across the country, or does central Illinois have its own unique needs?

The City of Peoria and the Central Illinois Workforce Development Board have been researching the economic trends and workforce issues facing our region. Recently, the board contracted with nationally renowned economist and researcher Dr. Richard Judy of Workforce Associates. Dr. Judy and his associate, Dr. Jane Lommel, produced a ground breaking analysis of the local economy entitled, “21st Century Workforce: Central Illinois.” This report examined the economic, demographic, workforce, and education trends and challenges facing central Illinois and how they may impact our workforce capacity in the next two decades. Major findings include: a potential shortage of workers in the near future, the need for new 21st century export industries, and the need for improved economic development strategies and educational outcomes. A major challenge of the report is to make central Illinois a learning community.

These challenges reflect similar trends on the national level, specifically the need to improve educational outcomes for the K-12 system and the potential worker shortfall and its short- and long-term impact on certain occupational areas. Challenges unique to central Illinois include a need to further diversify the local economy to attract new 21st century export industries with high paying jobs and the ability to attract, retain, and grow an expanded pool of highly trained technical and elite workers to match the needs of these new industries.

Since the study was published earlier this year, the Workforce Board has made numerous presentations to key community leaders and stakeholders. A strategic plan is also being developed that will incorporate input from focus groups and stakeholder initiatives.

Have the results of 21st Century Workforce: Central Illinois impacted your organization? How are you utilizing the information the report presents?

The 21st Century Workforce initiative has had a major impact on our organization and community. Since undertaking this study, the Central Illinois Workforce Development Board has a much better understanding of the specific economic, education, and workforce issues facing our region. The report has been a vehicle to engage our community in fact-based substantive dialogue that may shape the future of central Illinois for the next generation. Information in the report and subsequent research currently being conducted will be used to prioritize the expenditure of the various workforce development grants the community receives.

How are businesses relating and responding to the declining and deficient worker?

Businesses are responding in a number of ways to the existing and projected shortage of workers in key industries. In the health care industry, for example, shortages of nurses and medical technicians are a reality today. The City of Peoria and the Workforce Board are partnering with key stakeholders in the medical and education communities to develop innovative new approaches to recruit and train hundreds of new workers for the health care industry. Additional initiatives are also being undertaken by the manufacturing industry, construction trades, and education communities to address the projected shortfall of industrial technicians, skilled labor, and educators. Many of these approaches involve educating the community—including parents, teachers, and students—on career opportunities in these fields and developing mentoring, apprenticeship, and work experience opportunities for students. Another major area of attention will be in the increasing emphasis on improving the quality and quantity of career counseling in our schools. This was also a major finding in our 21st Century Workforce study and must be addressed if we want to impact this issue over the long term.

How different is today’s workplace issues from five, 10, and 20 years ago?

Today’s and tomorrow’s workplace is and will be much different from the workplace of five, 10, or definitely 20 years ago. The workplace is being impacted by different people, new technologies, a global knowledge economy, and an increasing pace of change in the business world.

As our society seeks to cope with the existing and projected worker shortages over the next 20 years, the changing face of the workplace will include more women, minorities, immigrants, and people with disabilities. Older workers will also play a different role than in past years. As a major percentage of the current workforce, Baby Boomers are approaching retirement age now and more will within the next 15 years. This may have a drastic impact on some industries, but it may also change our concepts of working age and retirement. The lines between these two may be blurred, and new and longer transitions out of the workforce may also take place.

Clearly, all of us are witnesses to the impact of new technologies in the workplace and in our lives. This new technology has impacted virtually every major industry and business in our economy. New technologies will continue to change our business processes and force the need for workers capable of constant change in the workplace and life-long learning to accommodate this dynamic business environment.

A similar phenomenon is occurring with the global knowledge economy. The amount of information is growing exponentially in our lives. Currently, within five years, our technical knowledge becomes obsolete. As the pace of information continues to increase, this knowledge obsolescence cycle will continue to contract. To adequately function in a fast-paced, dynamic, business environment, workers will not only need a good education and set of technical skills, but the ability to learn and change continuously. The nature of this new economy also demands better analytic, communication, customer service, and teaming skills.

What future workplace issues do you foresee?

A major workplace, management, and leadership issue of the 21st century will be the growing recognition on the importance of “human capital.” As nations, states, regions, communities, and businesses seek to compete for economic prosperity in the 21st century, the No. 1 asset or liability will be the quality, capabilities, and quantity of their workforce. Human capital will become the major factor for communities in the emergence of new knowledge-based industries and the ability to attract and retain growing 21st century companies. With the proliferation of new technologies and the fast-paced nature of changing business processes, the only competitive advantage will be the quality of the workforce. Businesses and communities that recognize this early will survive and prosper in the 21st century; the others will not.

The workforce model of the one-stop shop recently won an award. How are you helping other communities with their workforce issues?

The Central Illinois Workforce Development Board and Workforce Network one-stop system are recognized leaders for workforce excellence in Illinois. They’ve received recognition from the U.S. Department of Labor, Rutgers University, the National Association of Counties, the National Association of Workforce Boards, and the State of Illinois. Recently, the Workforce Board also received the Governor’s Award for Workforce Excellence. Model initiatives over the last three years include:

As a result of this achievement and recognition, our facility at One Technology Plaza has received numerous tours from groups throughout the state and nation. Our staff has also provided technical assistance to other workforce development professionals and board members throughout the country.

Do businesses in the area understand the concept of a “one-stop shop?” What would you like to say about the program?

We’re very pleased with the development of our local Workforce Network one-stop system. Our goal is to be able to assist businesses to meet their workforce needs. Our businesses services representatives are available to listen to and provide a comprehensive assessment of a business’ workforce capabilities. As a result, they can customize a package of services that meets their unique business needs. The Workforce Network, through its special partnership of organizations and resources, has the area’s most comprehensive array of workforce services. The variety of services available to meet these needs includes: job postings, career fairs, employee recruitment/screening, applicant assessment, career transition services, on-site interviews, labor market information, and multimedia conference facilities.

You’re active in the Muslim Education and Community Association of Peoria. Tell about this organization.

The Muslim Education and Community Association, or MECA Center, of Peoria is one of four Islamic centers in the Peoria area. Our goal is to educate the community on the religion of Islam and Muslims and provide a nurturing environment for Muslims to learn and practice the religion of Islam in Peoria. Over the past year, we’ve had the opportunity to speak to dozens of churches and community groups. We’ve also been active in interfaith activities with other religious and community leaders.

Since September 11, 2001, has there been misperception in our community regarding members of the area’s MECA organization? 

Since the tragic events of September 11, the MECA membership and other area Islamic centers have been actively engaging in public dialogue through news articles, editorials, television interviews, interfaith activities, and educational seminars and workshops. These activities have been helpful in opening lines of communication between the Muslim community and the larger community. This has also helped to promote a better mutual understanding and reduce misunderstandings and misperceptions that might occur in the absence of dialogue.

Talk about your involvement in interfaith activities. Do you believe these activities are important to community unity?

I’ve been a supporter and member of the Central Illinois Chapter of the Interfaith Alliance. I think one of the greatest challenges our society will face in the 21st century will be managing the diversity among the many subcultures of American society. One of our strengths as a nation also has been in our ability to overcome our differences through dialogue and respectful communication. Interfaith organizations provide an environment for people of different faiths to come together to address issues of common concern. They also provide a forum to learn about different faiths. Our Central Illinois Chapter of the Interfaith Alliance distinguished itself over the last year in taking a leadership role in organizing positive responses to the events of September 11 and acting as a true healing force for our community. IBI