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A Publication of WTVP

Over the last few years, leaders in central Illinois have been researching, planning, and aligning community resources to meet the challenges of a new global knowledge economy. As traditional manufacturing jobs gradually leave the region or transform into high-skill, high-knowledge occupations, thousands of individuals and families have been impacted. At the same time, new jobs have emerged that require different skill sets than the jobs that have been lost.

To compound this problem, shortages are beginning to emerge in a number of high-skill occupations including nursing, health care technicians, engineering, and knowledge technologists. Another looming challenge for our region will be the emergence of new occupations driven by the innovation and technology of the new economy.

These trends point to an emerging new reality: the quality and quantity of the workforce will be critical to economic competitiveness. In assessing the nature of our workforce, however, a number of distinct challenges emerge. The primary challenge will be in understanding basic characteristics of our workforce, which include four major components: entrant workers, marginal workers, incumbent workers, and elite workers.

Entrant workers comprise the future workforce-students transitioning from school to the workplace. Entrant workers will be impacted most by the changing nature of the new economy and a future with new occupations we have yet to imagine. It'll be vitally important that young people receive a solid elementary and secondary foundation, in addition to post high-school training and education. We must improve the graduation rates and reduce dropout rates of our region's high schools. We must also do a much better job of preparing young people to compete globally with sound academic, technical, and soft skills. Of the students who graduate from central Illinois high schools, about 40 percent lack basic academic skills, according to Illinois standardized test results.

Future jobs also will require increased "soft skills" including communication, teaming, and analytical and problem solving skills. In addition, central Illinois employers note entrant workers lack soft skills such as teamwork and customer service.

Another important area that will impact the entrant workforce in central Illinois will be the ability to give better career choices to our young people through improved career and technical education programs. Over the last 20 years, many central Illinois school districts drifted away from career and technical education programs in favor of a narrower focus on college preparatory curricula. Unfortunately, this trend may have reduced options for many young high school students seeking better transitions between school and technical careers. Fortunately, within the last few years, educators, policy makers, and community leaders have reexamined the need for career and technical education. As a result, new and exciting programs are emerging in K-12 school districts and through innovative partnerships with community colleges, union apprenticeship programs, and corporate sponsored initiatives.

To meet these challenges for our entrant workers, local educational systems will have to adapt their curricula, organizational structures, educational processes, and teacher training. The ability to reach and maximize the potential of each student will become increasingly important to the prosperity of local communities. IBI

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