When I started my career in economic development I never thought I’d also have to know as much as I do now about public health and infectious disease. The COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the world and our nation, creating both a health crisis and an economic crisis. The two are inextricably linked. At first, government mandates to facilitate “flattening the curve” shut down large segments of our economy. Now, though these mandates have loosened to some degree, many businesses still struggle, especially in the consumer based economy. This could be due to some remaining mandates such as reduced occupancy, but it is probably largely due to a change in behaviors. Some of us are choosing not to leave home to shop or dine like we used to either out of concern for health or because their work or home situations are just different. Whether or not this disruption is permanent or not remains to be seen, but whatever “normal” will be is probably still a long way off.
The hospitality and leisure industry that has taken the brunt of the economic punch. While the region has certainly seen a rebound since its April nadir, we still registered 20,700 less jobs in July 2020 than we had in July 2019. Sadly, over 40% of the job loss is in the leisure and hospitality industry, with a staggering 8,800 less jobs. (A silver lining is that we gained 1,000 jobs between June and July, but still….) The chart below shows employment by industry in the Peoria MSA.
Why is it important to be concerned about employment losses in this industry? The road back to normal is likely longest for these businesses, and hospitality employees are among the least likely individuals to have the sorts of credentials and skills required to find employment in industries that are rebounding or are more likely to rebound more quickly. These are our restaurant servers, hotel staff, ballpark concession workers and Civic Center employees. Not surprisingly, the Illinois Department of Employment Security reports that 54.4% of the people filing for unemployment in July 2020 had just a high school diploma or less. So what happens when their jobs just do not come back?
This is why an aggressive and flexible workforce development system is more important now than ever before. Fortunately, our region was already working to align systems to serve this exact population. The Regional Workforce Alliance was launched as a project of the CEO Council Foundation under the capable leadership of Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey and Patti Abel. The Alliance has brought together a wide range of stakeholders and organizations (including Greater Peoria EDC) to develop programming in three areas:
- Emerging Workforce Pathways: Connects youth education and experiences with the regional careers.
- Multiple Barriers: Focuses on adults who swirl through community based organizations and support systems with little to no credentials or work experience to qualify for entry level job stabilization
- Working Adult Up-skill Pathway: Targets underemployed and under credentialed adults with work experience to obtain credentials that address workforce gaps.
While the career pathways area is fundamental to the future of our economy and we always need to be working to knock down barriers to work, the plight of the unemployed hospitality worker is a key focus of the upskilling effort. We need to improve on our abilities to rapidly connect these out-of-work individuals with training that makes them employable. With proper credentials, two things happen: Unemployed people are connected to jobs that are even better than the ones they lost and those hospitality jobs open for people who are looking for those more entry level jobs.
Greater Peoria is blessed with great institutions like Illinois Central College, Methodist College, Eureka College and Bradley University who all offer opportunities to improve skills. But there is a role for the business community to play too. What jobs are currently open in your company and what skills do those jobs require? Have you connected with one of these institutions to see if they can develop training to meet those needs? Our colleges have become more entrepreneurial and responsive to business needs, but they need to hear the voice of the customer — you! If you want to connect with one of these institutions, please drop me a note and we can work together on a solution.
Finally, while this article is about workforce issues, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the great works our friends and partners at the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau are doing to help the hospitality industry come roaring back. Their rebranding to Discover Peoria is positioning this region to capitalize on a new type of tourism, both for those within a half-day drive and our own citizens experiencing what our community has to offer. All these pieces are working together to help our region’s economy rebound.