In January, Toyota and Mazda announced that they would be building a joint factory on 1200 acres in Huntsville, Alabama. This ended a furious scramble by states and cities across the US looking to pitch their “mega-sites” (infrastructure ready sites of 1000 acres or more) to these automotive giants. Lots of pundits were shocked when Alabama got the nod over North Carolina, the other finalist. North Carolina reportedly offered nearly $1.5 billion worth of incentives, allegedly three times higher than Alabama’s offer. It seemed like an offer that couldn’t be beat.
But some issues are more important than incentives. According to industry experts at Baum & Associates, Toyota-Mazda was swayed in large part because of logistics and workforce. Alabama was already home to three other auto plants and consequently a sophisticated supply chain. Good logistics save money. In addition, according to Alan Baum, “Huntsville has a reputation for a technical workforce historically and in the present.” This is not an accident. With all the automotive manufacturing jobs in the state, Alabama began crafting its workforce efforts to match employer demand.
What does a story about a car plant in Alabama mean to Greater Peoria? It shows the importance of focusing on our greatest asset – our people. At the GPEDC, we hear about workforce all the time. When we are marketing the area to prospective companies, the first question they usually ask is about the quality and availability of our workforce. The number one barrier to growth reported by existing businesses is finding enough qualified people to fill jobs. And even startup companies will tell you that right after access to capital, access to employees is their biggest challenge.
Traditionally, a qualified workforce was equated with how many Bachelor degrees there were in a community. As important as a four-year degree is in some fields, we are seeing increased importance in certifications and other programs that give people the necessary skills to meet today’s demands. Greater Peoria has adopted Illinois’s goal that 60% of its workforce will have some post-secondary degree or certification by 2025. We have some great examples of this work locally. Illinois Central College has launched an apprenticeship program in industrial maintenance that combines in-class instruction with on-the-job training. The tuition is covered by employers and enrollees finish the 2½ year program with an associate’s degree, the proper industry certification and a guaranteed job. Midstate College partnered with Peoria Public Schools to co-enroll eight juniors from Manual High School in their medical coding and billing program. Students spend half the day at Manual and half the day at Midstate. At the end of their senior year, they will have a diploma and a set of marketable skills.
In October, GPEDC and Junior Achievement will be hosting the second annual CareerSpark, a hands-on career exploration event for every 8th grader in our region. We’ve also just wrapped up the third year of GP Pathways, a program that placed 182 high school students in paid internships at over 30 different companies and is supporting the development of career pathways at local high schools. That work dramatically expands this coming school year.
We need to keep our focus on our workforce. Businesses are certainly interested in the workforce available today, but also need to understand that there is a pipeline in place to supply employees for years to come. Feel free to reach out to any of us at GPEDC if you want to learn more about our regional workforce efforts.