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Lt. Gov. Simon hosts listening post in Freeport 

 
Feedback on jobs and education will lead to rural action plan

FREEPORT – April 30, 2012. As chair of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, Lt. Governor Sheila Simon hosted a rural listening post in Freeport today and heard from rural leaders, citizens and employers about how to strengthen educational opportunities and workforce development in the region.

The public forum was the fifth in a statewide series of rural listening posts hosted by the Rural Affairs Council and the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University. Feedback from the forums will be collected by the IIRA and used to develop a strategic plan for the council and member agencies.

The listening posts give participants the opportunity to provide input on a variety of issues including business climate, health care, education, infrastructure and quality of life. The importance of bridging the skills gap between prospective employees and employers has been a common theme, Simon said.

“To keep pace with our changing economy, Illinois needs 60 percent of working-age adults to have a college degree or credential by 2025,” Simon said. “But in rural areas, only a quarter of working-age adults have a two-year degree or higher. As a state, we need to make better connections between employers, high schools, community colleges and public universities so that students have clear pathways from school to work and from college to career.”

Among listening post topics, participants discussed the challenges and opportunities that exist for rural Illinois citizens to work in manufacturing as those jobs become more technologically advanced. A survey by the Manufacturing Institute found that five percent of manufacturing jobs nationwide are going unfilled, which adds up to nearly 28,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in Illinois.

Berner Foods, Inc. in Dakota is one example. The food and beverage manufacturer has struggled to find qualified workers, despite plans to hire 40 additional employees in the next six months, according to Berner President and CEO Stephen Kneubuehl who participated in the listening post. Berner prefers job applicants to hold a National Career Readiness Certificate, issued by the ACT, that certifies an individual is competent in workforce skills such as applying mathematical reasoning to work-related problems and the ability to perform work-related mathematical calculations.

“All jobs have become more technical, even in entry level positions,” Kneubuehl said. “By using the NCRC, we have been more successful in hiring the right person the first time. We have found that this process results in better worker morale, lower turnover, and increased productivity. This is good for workers and good for business.”

To ensure workers have the skills needed for 21st Century jobs, Simon is pursuing education reform that aims to improve college and career readiness in math. This included Senate Bill 3244, amendment 2, which authorizes the Illinois State Board of Education to design and recommend curriculum models that illustrate how to teach state standards in middle and high school math. It has passed the Senate and awaits a vote in the House.

Rural listening posts were held by Lt. Governor George Ryan across Illinois in 1986 and led to creation of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council the following year. In 1998, 2000 and 2007, the Rural Affairs Council, the IIRA and the Illinois Rural Partners, a non-profit, organized listening posts across Illinois to directly gather input from rural citizens. The 25-member council is comprised of citizen members and representatives from various state agencies, institutions and organizations that impact rural Illinois.

“Rural areas in Illinois face economic issues that will require innovative remedies involving collaborations between state and local leaders,” said Dr. Norman Walzer, the Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University. “The Governor's Rural Affairs Council has a long-history of working with local agencies on programs addressing relevant issues. The listening post in Freeport is one of several ways to gather information on the kinds of programs needed in the future.”

The final listening post will be held May 10 in Quincy. For more information on the rural listening posts, please visit www.ltgov.illinois.gov.