Illinois public and private sector leaders are joining U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL,11) in an effort to help boost jobs and economic development in Will County and the Chicago region.
Foster kicked off his "Project Growth" initiative at a panel discussion in Joliet on Friday. The endeavor is focused on four key issues: education, manufacturing, strengthening the middle-class and transportation.
“My goal in launching Project Growth is to do deep examinations of what’s working in our communities, what isn’t working, and what we can be doing to better support job creation and more economic development,” the congressman said at the launch of his new initiative.
Last year, Foster visited more than 145 businesses and groups in the district, which includes parts of Will, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, and Cook counties, to learn about the opportunities and challenges community members are facing. Project Growth builds on that outreach and looks to bring stakeholders together to develop an agenda focused on growing the local economy and bringing jobs and opportunity to the region, the congressman said.
Friday's discussion mostly focused on Will County, but Foster plans to hold a similar talk in Aurora, which is located in Kendall, Will, DuPage and Kane counties, in the coming weeks.
Panelists centered the dialogue around the mismatch between the skills workers in the region have and the skills that jobs require.
Will County’s unemployment rate stood at 9.8 percent last month, which is higher than the state's February jobless rate of 9.4 percent.
"That's horrible," stressed John Greuling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development.
Greuling said Will County is creating good jobs, pointing to the 5,290 postings for jobs in the area last month, according to data from the Workforce Investment Board of Will County. The problem is that many employers simply cannot find qualified applicants to fill open positions.
"It's a tragedy when a worker is staying home unemployed and the business manager is frustrated that their business is not growing because they haven't discovered each other or the worker hasn't taken the training," Foster stressed.
Romeoville-based Nanophase Technologies, which manufactures and sells engineered nanomaterial products, is one Will County company looking to hire engineers.
"They are very difficult to find,” said Nancy Baldwin, the company's vice president.
The local manufacturing industry and educational institutions need to form better partnerships, panelists said.
Joan Wisniewski, human resources manager for Pactiv, a food and drink packaging manufacturer with a facility in Bolingbrook, said students may not be aware of the range of job opportunities in the manufacturing industry.
"Some of the issues that we're facing in manufacturing are, on one hand, an aging workforce and, on the other hand, a young workforce that really doesn't have a lot of interest in manufacturing," she said.
Lewis University President James Gaffney suggested that a survey be conducted of all the local academic, training or certificate programs that exist or are in the works. The aim is to link the programs with target industries.
Gaffney said the university wants to host a collaboration summit to bring together higher education and business leaders. The summit will help education professionals identify the needs of businesses and what type of skills they want their future employees to have.
Increased online education is also key, Foster said.
"Many people that want to upgrade their work skills are finding that [online education] is a workable thing," the congressman added. "A single mom that has a kid to take care of can still complete an online course without paying for a babysitter and so on. That really opens up a lot of windows for the continuing career education that is going to be such an important part of the future of everyone's career."
Some of the emerging career fields in Will County involve energy, logistics, transportation, life sciences, retail, health care, advance manufacturing and food processing, Greuling said.
"The industries that brought us to the dance are still very important to us, and those are traditional industries like Caterpillar, our oil refineries, Citgo and ExxonMobil, our chemical companies, all of them have gone through incredible transformation, and they're making huge investments," he noted. "The challenge for us, we're not going to see as many new jobs coming out of those sectors."
Another component of the Project Growth initiative is to "push very aggressively" for federal legislation aligned with Project Growth's priorities, Foster said.
The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which would gradually raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour over a two-year period, is one of the priority measures. Foster has co-sponsored the bill. The congressman has also signed onto the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act, which would renew the now-expired federal program that provides emergency unemployment benefits.
Other Project Growth priorities include moving the controversial Illiana Highway project forward. The 47-mile tollway would connect I-55 in southern Will County to I-65 in Indiana. Foster also has a measure, the National Fab Lab Network Act, that would set up a national network of digital fabrication labs in an effort to promote advanced U.S. manufacturing, among other pieces of legislation aligned with Project Growth's agenda.