We at InterBusiness Issues often hear the complaint from business owners that there aren’t enough qualified, talented, knowledgeable, and dedicated workers to go around.

Workers who have these abilities are the keys to the future of the Tri-County area, and the driving force behind any successful organization.

As Company A lures talented employees from Company B, talented and dedicated employees are impossible for Companies C, D, and E to find. Company F, meanwhile, is busy downsizing-forcing early retirements.

At the other end, parents and educators often only direct academically gifted students to immediately pursue a four-year college degree after high school and away from technical training and apprenticeships.

In fact, a bipartisan commission consisting of the former labor secretaries of Presidents Carter and Reagan, many corporate CEOs and union leaders recently compared the theory-based U.S. educational system to the application-based Asian education system. They concluded that, “America may have the worst school-to-work transition of any advanced industrial country. If we don’t change the way we prepare our people for the new work world, business and industry will go elsewhere, and our middle class and standard of living will decline.”

What’s happening in the Peoria area? Do education and business leaders differ in their expectations? Most importantly, what can we do to correct the trend?

These five community leaders responded to our questions regarding the realities and responsibility of business to education. They each bring a different perspective to the issue by reason of their careers and involvement in education.

James E. Despain is vice president of the Track-Type Tractors Division of Caterpillar Inc. He joined the company in 1955 as a machine operator, moving into management as a machine ship foreman in 1964. He served in a variety of management positions at the company’s East Peoria, Illinois plant and at its Towmotor facility in Mentor, Ohio, becoming manufacturing manger at Towmotor in 1973. In 1974, he was promoted to managing director of production administration at Caterpillar Mitsubishi Ltd., Caterpillar’s joint venture with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan; and in 1980 was named president of CONECK S.A. de C.V., Caterpillar’s wholly owned subsidiary in Monterrey, Mexico. Despain returned to the Peoria area in 1988 to assume the position of East Peoria plant manager. He was named vice president of North American manufacturing plants in 1989, of the Construction & Mining Products Division when the company reorganized in early 1990, and of Track-Type Tractors Division in early 1992.

John G. Sahn, is vice president, secretary and treasurer of CILCORP Inc. He graduated from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and philosophy. In 1970, he received a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University in New York. In 1975, he received his law degree from IIT/Chicago-Kent College of Law. Sahn began his employment as General Counsel for CILCORP on February 1, 1988. He was elected vice president effective February 1, 1989, Secretary of CILCORP in March 1994 and treasurer in August 1998. He also serves as secretary of Central Illinois Light Company, QST Enterprises Inc., and numerous other CILCORP subsidiaries. Prior to joining CILCORP, Mr. Sahn was a partner for ten years in the Peoria law firm of Leiter, Sahn, Brady & Associates. Sahn has served his community in various leadership positions. Sahn is currently Secretary and a Director of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce and Chairman of its Education Committee; vice chairman of the American Red Cross, Central Illinois Chapter; a director of the Peoria Development Corporation, Methodist Medical Center Foundation, White Oaks Companies and the Wildlife Prairie Park Foundation.

Vincent Carl Wieland currently serves as the president of the board of education for the Peoria Public Schools, District 150. He currently is in his fourth year of a five-year term. Wieland is employed as a Sergeant with the Peoria Police Department, having served with the police department for nearly eleven years. He became interested in becoming a school board member after commanding the Juvenile Bureau for several years and working closely with the District 150 staff and administration. His expertise is in the areas of juvenile and gangs. He is certified through the State of Illinois as a Gang Crime Specialist and has commanded the current Peoria Police Department’s Gang Unit for several years. A product of District 150 himself, he attended Hines Grade School, Richwoods High School, Illinois Central College, Bradley University, and Sangamon State University. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree at Bradley University and has completed some graduate work at Sangamon State University.

Richard Kriegsman, president of Kriegsman Warehouse, Pekin, Illinois. A third generation of a family-owned business, Kriegsman Warehouse is celebrating its 85th birthday this month. They have been in their current location for 50 years, and at one time had operations located in several countries in the Far East. A lifelong Pekin resident and graduate of DePauw University, Kriegsman served nine years as a member of the Pekin Community High School Board of Education. He is past president of the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce and co-chair the Transportation Committee for the past eight years. He is a steering committee member of the Central Illinois Education to Careers Partnership, and is past president of Boys and Girls Club of Pekin and past president of the Transportation Club of Peoria.

Sandra M. Pellegrino has served on the Illinois State Board of Education since 1995. She is chair of Reading at Risk, Early Childhood Strategic Agenda Team, the 1998 Chief State School Officer Search Team, and was a delegate, to the Secretary of Education Reading Summit, in Washington, D.C., last month. Pellegrino is a retired Peoria attorney who concentrated in domestic litigation and child protection. She is active in the state bar association, as well as the community Domestic Violence Task Force, the Children’s home and other organizations. She was Illinois State Bar Association Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year in 1993. Pellegrino did her undergraduate and graduate work at the Unviersity of California at Berkeley and holds a law degree from DePaul University.

What are the significant trends, good or bad, that you see taking place in our community’s education system?

Despain: I think our schools continue making strides that ultimately improve education. For example, the district is re-engineering its curriculum to improve the students’ competencies in the areas most important to business-areas like work ethics and commitment, self management, communications, problem solving, team building and math. It’s unfortunate that, while I don’t agree with them, I see some people’s perception of the Peoria public school system deteriorating. Too many residents express concern at the quality of education provided here in Peoria, and are not aware of the many educational accomplishments.

Sahn: I see some good trends including: Commitment of the business community through the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce to the improvement of public elementary and secondary education in Peoria; willingness of the Peoria Public School’s administration and Board of Education to work with others in the improvement of our schools; a community-wide-commitment to training the workforce of tomorrow as evidenced by construction of the technology center in downtown Peoria, continued responsiveness to the educational needs of the community by Illinois Central College and Bradley University. Bad trends include: growing lack of parental involvement in education, decline in technical skills training in Peoria public schools, difficulty in attracting qualified persons in elementary and secondary teaching positions, growing lack of political support for education funding.

Wieland: Today, public education is facing more challenges than ever before. Education is now more expensive than ever before and that cost is skyrocketing. Public education has in the past almost solely depended upon public funding and government grants to educate our children. Today, there is an ever-increasing burden upon the taxpayer to fund public education. More demands are put on the system and entrusted with the taxpayer money, we must produce an excellent product.

The State of Illinois recently passed an educational reform bill. District 150 is very fortunate to have developed some wonderful and strong school partnerships that have helped tremendously in providing additional funds. School partnership is a trend of the future. I believe it is common knowledge that public institution will have to seek out additional funding mechanisms. Business partnerships are good for everyone. It is good for the community. It is good for business because they can help tailor vocational programs to meet their needs; and it is good for the students because they will be provided more opportunities due to commitments to education.

Second, a common complaint educators hear is that graduates are not adequately prepared for either college or the workplace. Our students today are doing and accomplishing more than ever before. We as an institution are obligated to educate children and children have the obligation to set forth effort, and want to learn. Unfortunately, we have an increasingly large segment of children that do not care about education and do not want to be in school. We cannot make someone learn if they do not want to. For this, the school system is not to blame. This is a societal problem.

The third alarming trend that I see is the lack of parental involvement in their children and their schools. If a child is provided a secure, nurturing, and positive learning environment at school, it must carry over to the home. Learning doesn’t only occur in the classroom, it is a continual progressive process.

The final very disturbing trend that I see in public education is increasingly violent acts perpetrated by younger and younger children in our schools. Last year our schools appeared to be a battleground in our nation. District 150 had been fortunate and we have been spared from any catastrophic event. Other than contending with violence in the schools, youthful violence is not as much as a school issue as it is a society issue. However, we must keep our schools safe and open for learning at any cost.

Kriegsman:Technological changes heighten the ability to deliver larger volumes of information to students in a way that differs from the past. The key is that a student has the ability and willingness to utilize the delivery system. Also, teachers have to be willing to climb on-board as the technology advances materialize.

Pellegrino: Business has traditionally had a strong interest in education, since business people recognize a good educational system produces capable employees and capable consumers. In the past, that interest has been expressed by such things as career days, career fairs, workplace tours, student job shadowing experiences, internships, apprenticeship opportunities, mentoring (both students and instructors), donations, “Adopt a School” programs, etc. As the world economy has grown more complex, and businesses have increasingly recognized their need for a highly skilled workforce in order to succeed, their traditional interest in education has intensified.

Business representatives have become more assertive in their demands for an educational system that produces a highly skilled workforce and in offering suggestions for comprehensive changes to education. Many national business organizations have established a formal structure to carry out its interest in changing the educational system. A good example is the National Alliance for business. Local business organizations have also increased their interest in education-for example, a number of local Chambers of Commerce throughout Illinois have an education committee, as does the state chamber.

These business efforts are the foundation for a partnership with education, at the national, state, and local levels. that can have a very positive impact on our school system. The state Board of Education strongly believes that the role of business is as a “critical friend” and close partner-that is, business can provide a perspective on the success or failure of our schools and also provide significant help in designing and achieving changes as needed. However, our mutual goals cannot be achieved if business “does its thing” form the sidelines-that is, if business representatives criticize the educational system without becoming involved, or offer suggestions for change without discussing their feasibility.

These actions can result in a waste of time and energy, with educators becoming defensive and both sides debating the merits of an idea that might not be workable in the first place.

We (the State Board of Education) believe that business and education must reach out to one another and develop a strong relationship based on shared responsibility. We need to work together on the important issues facing education in this country, in this state and in each community. We are pleased to say that much of that collaboration has already begun.

What is the role of business in public education? What should it be?

Despain: As business leaders, we feel it’s important to let schools know of our expectations for new graduates, and also help students in their pursuit of education. Business needs to work with the school system to develop a curriculum where students are taught the fundamentals of education along with a strong values. All of our efforts should be focused on giving our young people the tools they need to succeed as adults. For example, at Caterpillar, we have mentors visit schools to meet students one-on-one, we sponsor school-to-work initiatives and we provide leadership training for teachers.

Sahn: The role of business is to communicate to educators regarding workplace expectations for employee performance and job skills needed in the workplace; work with educators in achieving common goals regarding student achievement, and evaluate performance and recommend changes, as needed.

Kriegsman: One of the key roles is to interact with the educational leaders and staff convey to them what their needs are and allow open communication between the supplier and the end user.

In what ways has your company been involved in the local school system?

Despain: Caterpillar puts a strong emphasis on helping develop and improve school systems around the country, and Peoria is certainly no exception. Our company sponsors a number of programs aimed at developing the skills students need to excel after graduation-not only on the job, but also in society as a whole. For example, the skills trade development process is a six-year program that trains students in fields like machine repair and operation. In addition, our workforce preparation initiative provides high school students work experience in a job shadowing situation and our mentoring program gives a student someone in business who they can talk with informally.

Leadership training is a program we’re very proud of at Track-Type Tractors Division.

Each summer, we bring in 50 area teachers and expose them to a week-long training program similar to what our leaders receive. In addition to the leadership training, the teachers learn about our common values, the culture at our Division consisting of nine behaviors critical to success in life and on the job. Those values are trust, mutual respect, teamwork, empowerment, risk taking, sense of urgency, continuous improvement, commitment and customer satisfaction.

Sahn: CILCO has been a participant in adopt-a-school programs from their inception in Peoria and Springfield and has sponsored the business academy at Peoria High School. CILCO has also designed, funded, and implemented a state-of-the-art-mentoring program for students at Manual High School. In addition, CILCORP has established an endowment fund at the Peoria Area Community Foundation for education in the Peoria area. Finally, the company has encouraged the involvement of its employees in all aspects of public and private education.

Wieland: I am employed with the Peoria Police Department as a Sergeant. The Peoria Police Department has been very involved with District 150. We have provided endless law enforcement support to the District whenever needed. We provide DARE officers that teach drug and gang resistance as well as provide Liaison Officers to the four high schools that also serve the feeder schools.

The Tri-County area is experiencing a significant shortage of qualified workers. What can our school system do to remedy that?

Despain: Schools can’t let a majority of students get lost in the shuffle. Our studies show the top 15-20 and the bottom 15-20 percent of students receives the most attention. That leaves up to 70 percent of students possibly lacking in the basic direction they need. Those students will make up a large portion of tomorrow’s workforce, and we need to guarantee they receive the attention needed.

To solve the problem, our local district should consider benchmarking educational communities around the world. Many educational systems focus more on application learning-giving all students the true skills they need to survive. By offering an application-based learning program, Peoria’s schools would give students not interested in pure academics another profitable route to follow.

Kriegsman: I am not certain that the schools can remedy the shortage. The responsibility, it seems to me, rests with the employers to provide quality workplaces that can attract those looking for employment; if the emphasis in on “qualified,” then perhaps schools can try to identify the direction that a student is heading and provide the contact with an appropriate employer to set up an apprentice or mentoring environment that could benefit both parties.

What changes would you like to see in our local public schools, and how would those changes benefit students and businesses?

Despain: I’d like to see schools devote more time to the majority of students. We should remember that not all-good jobs require a four-year college degree. In fact, studies I’ve seen place the number as low as 18 percent of future jobs will actually require a college degree. Schools should communicate to all students the options available after graduation, and work together in finding the avenue best fit to the individual’s interests. Again, this could be done by giving guidance in relation to trade schools or alternatives to college.

Sahn: On July 20, 1998, the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce communicated eleven recommendations to the Peoria Board of Education regarding improvement of the Peoria public schools. In general terms, the recommendations deal with workforce development, demographic changes affecting the City’s public schools and the educational environment in the public schools. The recommendations are specific and are designed to improve the public schools through curriculum enhancement, vocational and personal counseling, scheduling flexibility, parental choice, etc.

Wieland: I would like to see the Peoria Public Schools recognized by the pubic for being the fine institution it is. I would challenge any local school district to compare and beat any of our programs. I would like to see this sold to the public. I would like to see the negativism stopped and the positive promoted. I would like to see families flocking to our district because of our successes. I would like to see increased community dedication and more parental involvement. Although our business partnerships are great, I would like to see even more new businesses involved as well as more local governmental cooperation. I would like to see an unprecedented community effort unlike any ever seen before dedicated to education. Imagine for one moment what this community and school district would be like with such cooperation. Our city, businesses, and schools would flourish.

Kriegsman: While schools try to be “public,” I think that a concerted effort needs to be made to have open dialog. For most people, the only way that they know what is going on in schools these days is through their student/children, or grandchildren, or what they read or see in the media. A perception present today is that schools are inaccessible, but if a way could be discovered to overcome that perception then schools would gain an understanding of what the employer needs. Students then get the benefit of more direction.

What role does vocational education play in today’s school system, and how do you think that role should be changed?

Wieland: Vocational education is going to play a significant role in the near future. It is a fact that every high school graduate is not college bound. Many children have no ambition to enter college upon completion of high school. Unfortunately, many of those graduates do not immediately posses the labor skills to acquire skilled labor jobs. I feel that we in public edu7caion, as well as those in the business community have a duty to change this. WE must change our paradigms and incorporate vocational education in today’s rapidly changing educational system. WE must prepare those students that re not molded for college to be prepared to immediately enter the workplace. Businesses have voiced their concerns over this matter. However, this endeavor will be costly and its success will be dependent upon school and business partnerships.

Kriegsman: Vocational educational plays a critical role for those who are willing to take advantage of it. It affords training at the school for those students who have some direction, and it is probably one of the best examples of interaction between students, instructors and employers. In the eyes of some students and parents, however, vocational education is considered to be an area of education solely for those who do not want to go to college. AT PCHS there are initiatives to try to encourage college-bound students to take vocational education courses, schedules permitting.

Pellegrino: Vocational education in today’s school system is NOT vocational education, as most of us have known it. It is not the “low track” curriculum to which schools assign students who are academic or behavior problems. It is not a set of superficial courses that may keep kids busy (i.e. wood working shop) but don’t help them move toward competence in a career area. Vocational education in today’s school system is intended to provide career development and occupations skills training in occupations that do not require a baccalaureate degree. The programs are sophisticated in ways that reflect our technological society and they require high levels of traditionally “academic skills, such as math and physics, applied to the specified task area.

In the 1996-97 school year, 342,384 or about 60 percent of all Illinois public high school students enrolled in one or more state approved vocational education courses, ranging from 9th and 10th grade orientation courses to 11th and 12th grade training courses. Students have both in-school and work-based experiences. Some students may take only one or two courses throughout high school while others are enrolled in at least one vocational class per year. These students leave high school with entry-level skills in their training are or move into advanced training at community colleges. With the increased complexity of today’s jobs, high schools are less able to provide entry-level skills for a wide range of occupations. What’s needed is a seamless link to community college or four-year degree programs (P-16). High schools should provide the core workplace basic skills and the academic skills needed to meet the more complex occupational skill standards provided by higher education.

Public school vocational education should be closely linked to high academic standards; include instruction in workplace, technical and academic skills; articulate opportunities with postsecondary education; provide student assessment to determine individual progress; allow for work-based learning experience with a work-site mentor, supervised by school personnel.

They should also ensure the student’s program relates to his or her career interest and abilities; like, whenever possible, student outcomes to national and state credentialing opportunities to show potential employers key skills have been learned; address individual students’ special needs to help assure success in the program; involved employer partners in all aspects of the program, i.e., skill standards, staff development, technology training, etc. Improvement is needed in the vocational education system to assure these characteristics are available to students. We also need to change the image of vocational education to correspond with the reality.

What is the role of parochial or private schools in our communities? What should it be? Should families be able to choose the school their children go to? Why or why not?

Sahn: Parochial or private schools offer an alternative to public education for those families and students who have an educational need which is not satisfied in the public education system. While this alternative is directly beneficial for some, it provides a competitive environment, which is important for all. The Chamber’s recommendation of school choice (not an unlimited voucher system) within District 150 is intended to resurrect parental involvement at a very fundamental level—the decision regarding where a child attends school.

Wieland: The role of parochial and private institutions in our community is very important. They serve specific needs and desires for families where public education can not meet their religious expectations. In the realm of religious studies, as provided by parochial for private institutions, public schools simply cannot deliver family desires due to government restrictions and regulations. Personally, I would like to see diverse religious teachings in public schools, but realistically it is not practical due to pending litigation that would almost certainly follow any implementation of a comprehensive religious curriculum. Private institutions are not bound by the strict regulations as is public institutions. However, I support their beliefs, devotions, and right to serve individual family needs. At the same time, however, I believe private institutions should remain so and not receive public funds to run their programs.

Pellegrino: Private schools give parents another educational choice for their children, often, but not always, tied to their preference that their children’s education have a certain religious grounding the law doesn’t allow in public schools. There were 321.406 private and parochial students in 1997-98, was about 14 percent of the total student population. Last year, there were about 2.3 million public and private school students in Illinois. I think private and parochial schools fill an important niche in our society, and by and large, do a wonderful job educating their students.

Wieland: I am not opposed to school choice within public education; and I personally believe parents should have the right to send their children to the school of their choice within their assigned school district. However, when school choice is considered, segregation is always an issue. I believe the 1960s proved there were definite advantages in attending predominately white schools over black schools. As a result, the segregation issues had to be rectified. Since then this nation has changed dramatically and we have made great strides in the equality of public education.

Today, I believe parents, whether black or white, would like to see their children attend neighborhood schools without having to be bussed across town. I believe parents and families have a sense of neighborhood pride and a desire to have their children attend neighborhood schools or those close to home. Today there are accountability factors that must be maintained in all public schools. I believe a change is needed and I believe school choice would be welcomed by a large number of people in our community. Recently, the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce proposed the idea of school choice to the District 150 Board of Education. I am in support of their idea, however I do not believe current federal requirements regarding segregation could be satisfied by this action.

Pellegrino: Families can and do choose whether to send their children to public or private school, so that part of the issue is already addressed. Within the public school system, the law says children must attend the schools within the geographic area, or school district in which they live. Historically, school district boundaries were drawn along township lines because areas were governed along township lines. People weren’t as mobile year and decades ago as they are now, and couldn’t move as easily as they can now. So the decision to create a public school system within reach township made sense, to provide every student the chance for an adequate education. Today, people can, and do, choose with their wallets, feet and moving vans. All of us know people who have moved to another area so that their child could attend a different public school.

In an increasingly complex society, some businesses have said that schools aren’t strong enough in the three R’s, graduating kids who just don’t know how to function practically. Is that a problem? If so, is there a better way to communicate that need for change?

Despain: There definitely is concern on our part in business. At Caterpillar, we see a number of applicants fail our Employee Selection Process that includes a test of math and English skills. There is more to education than the 3Rs, however, An increasing number of jobs, from the shop floor to the accounting offices, to the engineers’ design labs require good computer and communication skills. To really succeed in today’s world, students need improved keyboarding abilities and a foundation in the soft skills-things like respect, responsibility, teamwork and commitment. On all levels, we need to stress that life is not just about receiving a diploma. Life is about continuous learning.

Sahn: It is also said students lack the “soft skills” are needed in the workplace. Training in both areas is an important issue in public education. The State of Illinois developed new accountability standards, which need to be implemented in public schools throughout the state, including Peoria. Businesses should support higher academic standards and businesses should be prepared to commit additional resources in exchange for higher standards and improved performance.

Pellegrino: There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that this is a real problem. Too many students are not equipped with the knowledge and skills that are essential for today’s jobs-whether they are in a manufacturing plant or a law firm. There are at least three aspects to this problem: The standards we set for all students must be high enough to equip them for the workplace. The new Illinois Learning Standards establish rigorous expectations in the essential learning areas and they apply to every local school district throughout the state. We hope and believe that these standards-and the related assessment of how well students are meeting them-will raise the achievement bar in each local school. Our nation and our state face an increasing chasm between the economic haves and have-nots. There are also an increasing number of immigrants and children with disabilities. All of these factors can put children at risk of academic failure-and we must do what we can to ensure that all students are able to meet the standards. IBI