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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 12:13 am

Is the Economic Development Corp. paying attention?

The Sangamon County Board has recently formed the Economic Development Corporation(EDC) to attract new businesses to the Springfield area. Several concerns have been raised about the makeup of this group (23 men, 3 women and 1 minority), and the price tag to have a seat on the commission at $25,000-$50,000 per business. This cost leaves out small businesses as well as school districts already strapped for money. These concerns need to be addressed.

Another concern needs to be raised, and the EDC needs to respond. What does the new EDC plan to do to continue, promote and expand workforce preparation, business/education partnerships and guidance to high school students as they consider future careers?

The 2017 Economic Outlook Survey identified the availability of skilled workers as a challenge for businesses and organizations. This challenge has persisted for many years and is one of the reasons the Business/Education Partnership (BEP) advisory board of the Chamber of Commerce was initially formed in 2005. Through many meetings that included leaders in business and education, the then-mayor and the editor of the SJ-R, and representatives from the Catholic Diocese, the group determined the mission: “To provide the highly skilled, literate and productive workforce necessary to support a successful economic development environment.”

Since 2005 better communication between business leaders and educators has been established. Business and community leaders have been participating in the Professionals in the Classroom events. A deeper awareness of the needs of students and area schools has been built. Much more discussion has happened – in finding ways to help students explore careers and learn about possibilities in their own backyard.
Economic development, of course, means attracting businesses to our area. But, to have true economic development, we must have programs that will help students know of career possibilities, learn what is required and interact with professionals in their fields.

During the past year the BEP has been pursuing the launch of an online program that connects businesses to students called Connect – Career Cruising. This has had amazing results in the Quad Cities, where over 200 businesses interact with students, helping them determine their interests, develop needed course study and participate in job shadowing. Business professionals provide career counseling to students in online chats. Other neighboring cities have used this online program. There is such great potential for us here, too.
In fact, most freshmen in the high schools in District 186 have already taken the online assessment of interests. The hope has been to incorporate the use of the online career cruising throughout high school so that students can explore careers and interact with professionals.

Suddenly, though, the Business Education Partnership board has been disbanded, and the future of this online program is left hanging.

As a former teacher, I watched students struggle with making decisions about their future careers. They often didn’t know of the array of careers that could fit their interests, and they had little interaction with any of the businesses in Springfield. So they often said they would not stay in Springfield after graduation. Many who have been pushing for better business/education partnerships realized that it is essential to “grow our own” potential workers and have been committed to this aim for many years.

The EDC goal to attract businesses is laudable. But, we cannot attract businesses unless we have skilled workers to fill the jobs. And we cannot have skilled workers unless we, as a community, help students learn about available opportunities and have access to training.

Cinda Klickna, a former teacher at Southeast High School, has always promoted business/education partnerships and programs that help students choose careers. Since 1991, she has served on Chamber education committees, the Business Education Partnership and initiated Business Leaders in the Classroom Day when serving as president of the Springfield Education Association in the 1990s.

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