A $15 million federal grant has Illinois Central College, Bradley University and Eureka College partnering to produce more IT workers
A year after receiving $15 million as part of the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Good Job Challenge grant, a unique consortium of Illinois Central College, Bradley University and Eureka College has started to make inroads to filling the numerous vacant information technology (IT) positions in central Illinois.
While the program’s first nine months were primarily spent creating infrastructure for the new effort, students are progressing through classes at all three schools, helped by available benefits such as free tuition, fees, books and services such as childcare, all funded by the grant. Laptops can even be loaned, if necessary.
Input from area businesses and industry spurred the schools to focus on individual niches — Bradley on health care, Eureka on cyber-security, and ICC on programming, networking and user-support positions.
Classes are mainly online, with hybrid and in-person options available.
“IT is an ever-changing environment,” said Don Shafer, executive director of the IT Workforce Accelerator at ICC. “The need is not going to go away.” He added that the grant was one of just 32 awarded nationally and one of only two spearheaded by a community college. Funding covers students from the 10 counties in ICC Community College District 514.
“The main thing is the collaboration of education, industry and community-based organizations is simply incredible,” said Michelle Riggio Rarick, executive director of Continuing Education and Professional Development at Bradley. “It (the application process) was a whirlwind. ICC’s team was amazing leading the charge.”
Bradley offers certificates in telehealth, electronic medical records, health informatics and instructional design, with additional programming certificates in the works. Rarick said the courses offer students a quick return on investment and an opportunity for in-demand jobs. Plus, the self-paced nature of the programs makes them attractive to adult learners with jobs and other responsibilities. Successfully completing the courses leads to a digital certification that employers can check and verify.
It’s not just the schools that collaborate, said Rarick. “We’ve got groups of employees from two of the hospitals in town” who have “created a weekly lunch-and-learn, on their own, to motivate each other to complete their assignments,” she said.
Dr. Donna Bradley, special assistant to the president for Strategic Initiatives and DEI at Eureka College, said so-called soft skills such as communications and critical thinking also are covered as students train for cyber-jobs that include forensics analyst, incident responder and infrastructure specialist.
The programs focus not only on people seeking a career change or advancement but also on those coming from high school, said Bradley. A college degree often isn’t required for tech help desk positions, and the common goal is getting students ready for the IT workforce, she added.
“Collaboration is the way of the future in higher education,” said Bradley, noting just how much the pandemic changed the playing field. “It’s not about any one of the individual schools.”
Rarick agreed that COVID sparked some new perspectives. “We all know we need to keep our (job) skills sharp,” she said. “Lifelong learning is taking on a new meaning. It applies to everybody.”
The push for non-traditional students and adult learners became clearer recently with the news that the number of graduating high school seniors in Illinois had dropped 5% from its 2015 peak. Crain’s Chicago Business has reported that the number of high school graduates is expected to drop 22% by the middle of the next decade.
“People are excited about growing an adult student population,” Bradley said. “We’ve taken into consideration the responsibilities of parents, employees.”
That extends to area businesses and industry. Shafer, who has a financial services background, said an estimated 1,500 IT jobs will need to be filled in the region in the coming years. The programs cover both experienced and entry-level positions.
“We knew the business community wanted this,” he said.
The grant runs through mid-2025, but Shafer hopes it can become self-sustaining and continue. As the IT landscape changes, likely so too will the course offerings. Meanwhile, faculty also help students with interview preparations and résumés.
“It is really an opportunity to grow jobs in this region,” said Shafer.
“We know that learners who earn credentials … can change the trajectory of their lives,” added Rarick. “Employers also benefit from a skilled workforce and a growing economy.”