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In our last article, we highlighted the recent visit of Dr. Richard Florida, author of Rise of the Creative Class. Dr. Florida was a featured speaker at the Peoria NEXT Discovery Forum.

In his book, Florida examines issues of economic and community development in a 21st century knowledge economy. One trend he identifies is that of companies moving to or forming in places that have skilled people. He goes on to describe this new class of worker as the "Creative Class." This Creative Class is distinguished by the characteristics of knowledge, skills, talent, and creativity. Florida's book also discusses the challenge of communities to grow and attract this new Creative Class.

Leaders in central Illinois have also been wrestling with these issues. Over the last few years, there have been a number of outstanding community development initiatives that have emerged to address the issues of developing human capital and community capacity. These include the "21st Century Workforce: Central Illinois and Talent Force 21." These two initiatives identified a number of challenges for our central Illinois community including culture, education/training, economic, and workforce.

The culture challenges include: making central Illinois a learning community, making central Illinois a highly attractive place to live and work, and working together for the benefit of the entire region. These issues underscore the foundation issues of community success in a 21st century global economy. To attract and retain highly skilled and talented workers-a talent force-communities must have a lifelong learning culture. This includes a sophisticated formal and informal education infrastructure of pre-school, K-12, community college, baccalaureate, graduate, doctoral, post-doctoral, research, internet, museums, mentoring, community, and faith-based systems. They must also have cultural, entertainment, social, and recreational amenities attractive to students, younger workers, families, and older professionals.

Key education/training challenges include: reducing drop-out rates in central Illinois high schools, improving educational outcomes of K-12 education, ensuring the proper mix of education/training opportunities, and improving the career counseling in our educational system. These issues are both complex and systemic. Currently, about 700 young people are dropping out of high school each year. According to our 21st Century Workforce research, of those students who do complete high school, about 40 percent are deficient in the basic skills of reading, writing, math, science, and social science. Our students and future workers also need better help transitioning from school to work. Career counseling in most high schools is understaffed and insufficient to assist many young people in seeing the connection between their K-12 learning experience and their future careers.

Workforce development challenges include: working with employers and trainers to develop the best training and retraining system, focusing on the recruitment and retention of a skilled workforce for our region, and reducing barriers to workforce participation. These challenges go the heart of ensuring an adequate quantity and appropriate quality of the regional workforce. They also address improving the system that assists employers with enhancing the skills of their incumbent workers and providing career transition for those workers dislocated by layoffs or shut downs. Other related issues include recruiting new, highly skilled workers to our region, eliminating barriers to effective participation, and expanding employment opportunities for workers who may be underemployed or unemployed.

Finally, one major economic development challenge for our region will be ensuring the success of Peoria NEXT. This initiative has the potential to reshape the economy in this region for years to come.

Over the last few years, dozens of leaders and organizations have been working to address these challenges in our community. We'll explore some of these efforts in upcoming issues. IBI

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