June 25, 2024

Understanding Our Workforce – All of It

By our nature, those of us in the economic development profession are optimistic and positive representatives of our communities. We are marketers, salespeople, and champions of the region. We look to match our assets and strengths with a company’s needs, whether that is one of our own hoping to grow in the region or a completely new player we are enticing to join us. But as fun as it is to share all the great things we have going for us, to be done well, economic developers also need to identify the region’s weaknesses and work to solve them. As Socrates is alleged to have said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” A corollary would be that an economic development organization that isn’t working to improve the product they are selling is not worth paying for.

It will come as no surprise to any of you who regularly read these articles or hear me talk that I think that workforce development is at the core of economic development. That’s why when the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) sought ideas for planning efforts aimed at improving local economic conditions post-COVID, Greater Peoria EDC raised its hand and was awarded a grant to conduct a comprehensive laborshed analysis and workforce improvement plan. The grant funding allowed us to hire a consulting team from Newmark, a multinational firm with deep experience as corporate site selectors, to conduct a deep dive into our workforce system. They used national datasets and their own proprietary data systems to establish a framework and then grounded that work through an in-market visit last fall and through dozens of conversations with employers, service providers, educational leaders, and other partners.

Earlier this month, the Newmark team came back to Peoria to present their findings to a diverse group of over 50 stakeholders. Their insights included a profile of our labor pool, identification of our strengths and weaknesses, and data-driven recommendations for improvement. Their analysis was balanced: Greater Peoria has a robust and interconnected system that provides excellent services to both employers and job seekers. The Newmark consultants were impressed with many of the programs and initiatives we have in place and repeatedly commented that our foundation was strong. But they also pointed to areas where we could strengthen our work. Among their recommendations, they felt we needed a more robust business outreach program so that we could better monitor hiring trends and challenges. They thought we needed more alignment between our high schools’ career and technical education offerings and target industries like advanced manufacturing and healthcare. They discussed better marketing of positive stories from our public school system. Their presentation is available here.

Like all honest assessments, there were some things that were tough to hear. Everyone would like to believe that we are exactly where we want to be. But like every other community in the nation, there is room for improvement. Luckily for our region, we have the platform upon which to build this work. Our June gathering also included a presentation on the Regional Workforce Alliance (RWA). Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey, co-chair of the RWA, highlighted five years of progress: a 38% increase in high school students receiving work-based experiences, a 1,443% increase in college pre-apprenticeships, 6,927 employees upskilled in customized programs, and over $30 million in external funding for workforce programs. (The detailed presentation can be viewed here.) 

This sort of effort impressed Newmark. Many communities would be starting at zero to improve their workforce system. Over the past few years, we worked hard to gather the relevant players, build a structure that identifies issues, develops solutions, and implements and measures programs. The Newmark analysis gave us a look into the good and not-so-good in our current efforts but also showed us how the strength of the RWA gives us an advantage in tackling our next set of challenges