A Publication of WTVP

It’s long been my habit to “study my way” through anything. I read using highlighters. A measure of the lessons to be learned can quickly be discovered by the amount of text covered by color and the number of colors used (a different color for each reading).

The 173-page study before me—21st CENTURY WORKFORCE: CENTRAL ILLINOIS—is heavily adorned with four colors on every page. It’s required reading for any serious student of our economic past, present, and future. In my new role as chair of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce Committee on Workforce Development and Education, one might expect such diligence and look for me to provide cliff notes. That’s a tall order, but here is my best effort. 

During the past 150 years, central Illinois seniors have migrated through the economic areas of farming, agricultural processing, and heavy equipment manufacturing. Although we’ll leverage some of our future on the residuals of those historical eras, those days are long gone or in substantial decline. We must now diversify away from heavy manufacturing and dependence upon a few major employers and move ahead to the emerging knowledge economy powered by many smaller firms engaged in rapid deployment of innovative solutions and products.

To succeed in that transformation, we must have excellent schools and a community culture of learning. We must also create a coherent strategy, direction for economic development, a good highway system, a first-class airport, high-speed telecommunication capabilities, an attractive livable downtown, first-class public services, a taxation system that’s fair and favorable to business, and much more. While this is a tall order, its significance pales in the face of our major educational challenges. 

The high schools of central Illinois are among the most important workforce development institutions in the area. The facts are three District 150 high schools are on the watch list, and 5,000 students are likely to drop out over the next 10 years; central Illinois youth may be condemned to adult lives with dismal jobs and meager earnings. Too many young people emerge from adolescence without completing high school, or, if they do graduate, without learning what they need to lead productive and fulfilling lives.

The bottom line is this: improving K-12 education is the single most important step that can be taken to raise the quality of central Illinois senior workforce. Such improvement should reflect, in particular, fewer dropouts, higher graduation rates, and evidence of better subject mastery among high school graduates.

This daunting task of improving school performance is a community challenge and responsibility. One place we can begin is our current Adopt-A-School partnerships. Perhaps it’s time for us to structure our efforts more intentionally and energetically offer assistance that’s more fundamentally supportive of the strategies and action plans now being formulated by District 150.

In our future works, the Chamber Committee will be exploring this approach. We’ll need the advice and assistance of the entire business community to be effective in that or any other role. No less than the future of the community is at stake. IBI