Solving the job skills gap…together

Soon after I began ­working for East Central Illinois Development Corporation (ECIDC) in 2010, I was surprised to hear ­business ­leaders express frustrations over their ­inability to find enough workers to fill ­manufacturing jobs. How could this be when our area unemployment rates had been so high? What I have since learned is there is a significant gap between the skills our workers have, and the skills our employers need, to fill today’s advanced technology jobs. Furthermore, this is a national problem with almost every rural region facing the same issue.

So how could our region tackle the skills-gap problem when national and state funding sources are sparse, and we are all competing for the same grant dollars? In east central Illinois, our answer has been to pool together resources of several ­businesses, community organizations, economic development groups and educational institutions (including a six com­munity college consortium) to address this issue. We have formed the East Central Illinois (eci) Super Region, and we are dedicated to better ­preparing both young people and those already in the workforce, with the skill sets needed for today’s ­manufacturing jobs.

Our first task was to survey many of our region’s manufacturing ­leaders and ask them how we might best help them. Their feedback gave us ­valuable insight. One key issue is that many potential employees lack basic skills in STEM (science, tech­nology ­engineering and math). Another concern involves soft skills such as reliability and the ability to pass drug screening tests. Yet another problem is the lack of interest to enter these careers in the first place. This is most likely attributable to the perception that manufacturing jobs are low-paying and performed in ­undesirable environments. In reality many of today’s manufacturing jobs offer competitive pay and are in clean, ­comfortable surroundings.

I have to admit, prior to my involvement in this project, I was part of the parent population who would have never suggested to my children they consider a training program ­leading to a manufacturing career. I didn’t realize that manufacturing jobs offer many opportunities for advancement to various ­management positions and start in fields like industrial engineering, logistics and inventory control, maintenance, quality assurance and production. But after learning some of the facts, such as the average manufacturing employee earns a total benefits’ compensation package valued at $77,060 annually (Bureau of Economic Analysis 2011), I decided I needed to share with my own childeren what I had learned.

In an effort to close this community awareness gap, the eci Super Region recently launched We designed the site to make it easy for students, parents, guidance counselors and ­others to discover the facts and many benefits associated with today’s modern manufac­turing jobs, as well as locate one of the many and ­varied technology training ­programs offered by eci Super Region ­partners. We appreciate the assistance the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives provided in building this website.

We are also encouraging local business-education partnerships. provides tools and resources to support these partnerships, including work-based learning templates and flyers designed specifically for students and parents.

Community and education ­leaders can work together with their ­businesses to host manufacturing expos and open houses for students, parents, and educators to tour the facilities. Even better, business-­education partnerships can offer students internship programs and on-the-job training, enabling area employers to discover and hire local talent.

Jean Anne Grunloh is the Executive Director of East Central Illinois Development Corporation (ECIDC,, an 11-county, regional economic development group.
Jean Anne Grunloh is the Executive Director of East Central Illinois Development Corporation (ECIDC,, an 11-county, regional economic development group.

A great example is the Lake Land College (LLC) and North American Lighting (NAL) partnership started last fall. According to NAL- Training and Development Manager Jim Jamrozek, the LLC-NAL Fast Track Tech Program is based upon the community college providing the initial basic skills ­training in an eight-week period, and the business committing to provide more in-depth training. William Adams, a Fast Track trainee, says, “I now have a lot to offer any company, and this is my first oppor­tunity to earn a decent income. Before my training I really had no future job prospects.”

Is your community ­partnering to address the skills gap? If not, I encourage you to visit You will find many talking points, community success stories to gain ideas, and tools to get the conversation started with your business and education leaders.