Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to participate in a daylong strategic planning session for Illinois Central College. This “community day” was near the end of a long and robust planning process charting out the initiatives of ICC over the next five years. While there were understandably a fair number of ICC personnel in the room, I was impressed by the number of community and business leaders who dedicated their entire day to sharing their thoughts and ideas on this important community asset. Throughout the day, we discussed student engagement, flexible course design, and “micro-credentialing” to better meet the needs of both students and employers. When we broke into small groups to have deeper discussions, I was elected (conscripted?) to report our ideas to the larger gathering. I was the last to speak of 14 tables, and since everything we had written on our butcher paper had already been said, I took the opportunity to make a confession.
I graduated high school in 1991, which makes me feel really old (but probably makes some of you feel older). And as a naive 18-year graduate of a Catholic college preparatory high school, I thought Pasadena City College or Glendale City College were the places my classmates went who weren’t smart enough to get into a four-year college. That’s why they were called “junior colleges,” right? A place for those not ready for prime time. That opinion came from a position of ignorance and, frankly, privilege. My family was not rich by any means – my dad was a truck driver and my mom a secretary – but it was clear to me that four years at a private college studying political science was completely attainable for me and expected. Why was that not the same for everyone? Why couldn’t they afford it? Why couldn’t they get into the same schools as me? Why didn’t they want to pursue the same career path as me? All of my friends were going off to four-year universities, too, and we all pretty much said the same thing within our group. We were jerks.
Fifty-year-old me is embarrassed that eighteen-year-old me existed in this way. I started to realize the value of community colleges early in my career. Before working in economic development at GPEDC and the City of Peoria, I helped run a nationwide mentoring program for Job Corps, a residential job training program for at-risk youth operated by the US Department of Labor. As students graduated from Job Corps, where they often got a great jump start on a new career path like welding, carpentry, or nursing, I found myself consistently referring my clients to their local community colleges to continue their education. At the same time, the federal government under the Bush and Obama administrations started pumping more money into career and technical education programs at this level, making them more robust and an even more viable option.
While the role of community colleges was certainly present during my time with the City of Peoria, I didn’t do much with workforce development, and it was more on the back burner in my mind. It wasn’t until I started with GPEDC five years ago that I realized how important community colleges were to the overall pursuit of economic development and how amazing Illinois Central College was at fulfilling its mission. Capably led by Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey and her excellent team of faculty and staff, I saw firsthand how impactful they are in moving our economy forward. More than incentives, quality of life, tax policy, or regulation, having a trained and available workforce is really the driving factor behind most business decisions. Make no mistake about it, we have a world-class partner in ICC. Last year we brought three corporate site selectors to Peoria for a “familiarization tour,” I can tell you with no hyperbole that they were blown away by what they saw and heard.
It has been a pleasure to partner with ICC and its staff over the past few years. From helping secure two capital grants totaling nearly $4 million to improve and expand ICC’s training facilities to collaborating with them to win a $15 million EDA Good Jobs Challenge, it has been some of my most rewarding work. Supporting them supports our broader work. We are lucky to have an institution that is affordable, equity-minded, flexible, and focused on serving both its students and the business community.
One further confession: Whenever I sing ICC’s praises, I feel like I’m not sufficiently giving the same consideration to our four-year institution partners. That could not be further from the truth. There is praise to go around. I wouldn’t trade my four years in college or my liberal arts degree for anything. We are blessed in Greater Peoria with a great community college as well as amazing institutions like Bradley University and Eureka College, and the University of Illinois College of Medicine. The workforce development system is inclusive of all of those, and it is important to have options. We need welders and historians, nurses and financiers, truck drivers, and engineers. In Greater Peoria, we are at an advantage because of the breadth of our quality, affordable options. Let’s make the most of it.