A Publication of WTVP

“Our schools aren’t educating young people for the jobs that are available.” “Our tech prep programs are not matched with employer needs.” “We have a workforce crisis and we better figure it out soon or we’ll lose our companies to other region.”

These assertions could have been made yesterday, but in fact, they were the same things I was hearing when I was involved in regional economic development in Peoria in the early 1990s. It is a nagging issue that has never seemed to go away or get better— and not just in Peoria, but nationally, too.

A few months ago, a group was formed as part of the Economic Development Council’s strategy focused on growing certain segments of the local economy. Our group, Specialized Manufacturing, was so named to examine the factors which would enable the industrial sector to expand and create more jobs in the region. Our agenda was a blank slate. We were charged with pitching ideas to an EDC advisory group for ongoing support.

Our first challenge was in attracting manufacturers to participate in the effort. These types of initiatives are normally doomed to fail if not crafted and led by those with the most at stake—the business community. I suspect that many of our mainstay manufacturing leaders are worn out by the groupthink approach to solving local problems. We have always struggled to get a core group of industry leaders to the table, and this was no different. After some prodding, we got a few to show up.

The interesting part was when we started kicking around ideas for our focus. And they ran the gamut—from creation of an international sourcing alliance to flexible manufacturing, pooled purchasing and top-line growth programs. We tried everything we could to avoid just defaulting to the workforce issue, but in the end, it bubbled up to the top as a critical challenge facing our manufacturing sector. The fact is, central Illinois manufacturers are creating jobs to keep pace with heavy demand. However, the days of punching in and running a machine are long gone. Today’s manufacturing jobs are thinking jobs, requiring analytical skills, problem solving and a depth of knowledge.

It seems there is a dearth of talent to fill them locally, although the Specialized Manufacturing Group is certainly not the first to attack this problem. But I believe that because it is being led by industry—particularly the capable stewardship of defacto Chairman Steve Stewart from Excel Technologies, Scott Hermann from Performance Pattern and Mold, Joe Richey from Tri-City Machine, Larry Sarff from Morton Welding and several others—it has the potential to succeed where others have failed. Already, the group has made significant progress in developing the talent pipeline, focusing on strategies for recruiting outside the region, and increasing participating in youth training programs.

More exciting work is to come. If you’re a manufacturing leader who wants to grow, you need to consider becoming involved with this effort. Call Ben Brewster at 472-4059 and come to the next meeting. Let’s see if we can change a local paradigm. IBI