Opinion Columns & Blogs

All hands on deck to help boost the Southwestern Illinois economy

Ronda Sauget
Ronda Sauget

Over the last few decades our economy in Southwest Illinois and across the nation has transformed. Globalization, the rise of the internet, automation, and many other forces have made all the changes hard to keep up with and left too many behind.

But the changes pale in comparison to what economists predict will happen in the nearby future. Things not too long ago on the realm of science fiction - self-driving cars and advanced manufacturing robotics, are just around the corner or common in many of our manufacturing facilities today. Without a doubt, technology is changing our lives at a rapid pace. With each of these things comes exciting opportunities along with unique challenges. That’s why we are working so hard to bring together key leaders from our region to ensure we are prepared for these upcoming changes.

For over 35 years, we’ve worked to lay the foundation for job growth in Southwest Illinois through public/private partnerships. Meaning, not only have we worked with our local community and business leaders as well as our statewide officials, but also our federal partners to recognize the importance of STEM related careers in growing economic prosperity in Southwestern Illinois.

We have seen all of our federal delegation members driving job growth in these career fields across the state of Illinois. Recently, that work was displayed when Congressman Rodney Davis, White House Senior Adviser Ivanka Trump, and local business and labor leaders gathered at Lewis and Clark Community College to address these issues and discuss how the federal government is boosting our efforts at the local level to ensure our workforce has the skills necessary for 21st century jobs.

Congressman Davis spoke about the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, which was recently signed into law, to enhance technical education programs and ensure the skills students are learning match those that companies need in the workforce.

Currently across America there are 6.7 million job openings and 6.3 million unemployed people according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But companies have had trouble filling those jobs because of what is known as the “Skills Gap.” Simply put those unfilled jobs require employees to have experience with things like computer coding, using 3-D printing, or welding. The legislation will help schools like LCCC and Southwestern Illinois Community College tailor programs to train students in these areas.

Business leaders such as Heidi Capozzi, Boeing’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources, really helped tie it all together. As she said, “The most important investment we make is our people.” The company which is responsible for creating more than 50,000 jobs in our region has been a leader in boosting educational programs. Last year alone it donated more than $23 million to local charities, much of which was invested in efforts to boost education programs for the workers of today and the innovators of tomorrow.

Ms. Capozzi explained how the CTE legislation and tax reform is allowing Boeing to make unprecedented investments in education and its workforce. She explained how tax reform allowed the company to make $300 million more in charitable investments in education programs and other community organizations, including $100 million in workforce development. These investments allow Boeing to provide enhanced career opportunities for 100,000 U.S. employees.

Combined with the CTE legislation, which helps the company better partner with educational institutions, that ensures the company can continue to thrive as one of the backbones of our local economy. Boeing already employs dozens of LCCC and Southwestern Illinois Community College graduates — all of whom were able to gain the skills needed to be successful members of the Boeing family, thanks to their education at Southwestern Illinois Community Colleges. And the combination of the investments enabled through tax reform and the CTE legislation should ensure many more students will get hired moving forward.

It shows us how critical these kinds of public/private partnerships are to growing our economy and creating good jobs in Southwest Illinois. It once again proves how an all hands-on deck approach where business, academic, and government leaders need to work together to boost economic development and ensure our region isn’t left behind as the economy rushes forward.

Ronda Sauget is the Executive Director of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois.