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Lt. Governor Simon kicks off listening tour of rural Illinois 

 
Rural leaders, citizens to focus on developing a skilled workforce at Peoria listening post

PEORIA – March 6, 2012. As chairperson of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, Lt. Governor Sheila Simon will kick-off a statewide series of “rural listening posts” today in Peoria to hear from elected officials, leaders and citizens about ways Illinois can improve economic opportunity in rural areas.

Feedback from the listening posts will be used to develop a strategic plan known as the Vision for Rural Illinois, said Simon, the only Southern Illinois native to hold statewide office. The plan will be written by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University and presented to the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council in July. The plan will include specific policy recommendations and action items for the council and its member agencies.

Simon wants listening post participants to offer input on how to better train workers and attract new employers to rural areas. In the 66 counties classified as “non-metro” by the IIRA, only 25.7 percent of working-age adults have a two-year degree or higher, compared to 39.4 percent in metro counties.

“We need to ensure that citizens in rural communities have access to a high-quality education that prepares them for 21st Century jobs,” Simon said. “Opportunities exist for good-paying jobs across our state. We need to make sure workers have the skills that employers seek.”

Lack of available skilled workers has been a challenge for Excel Foundry and Machine, a manufacturer of mining equipment located in Pekin. Despite experiencing a 60 percent increase in sales last year and offering machinist positions that pay up to $23 an hour, the company has struggled to fill open positions, according to Steve Stewart, director of human resources at Excel.

“We have been unable to find workers with the necessary skills, which is a challenge other manufacturers in the area are facing,” said Stewart, who will speak at the listening post about Excel’s workforce needs. “Manufacturing now requires workers with math and mechanical skills, which is why we look forward to working with Lt. Governor Simon to develop a more highly-skilled workforce that allows manufacturing to grow in Illinois.”

To ensure workers are prepared for the jobs of the future, Simon is pursuing a community college reform package that aims to improve college readiness in math. Nationwide, jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are projected to grow 17 percent by 2018, and pay wages 26 percent higher than jobs in non-STEM fields, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"We are very pleased with the awareness and support from Lt. Governor Simon regarding the key role the community colleges play in preparing workers for future STEM jobs and the need for math readiness in those jobs," said Geoffrey Obrzut, President and CEO of the Illinois Community College Board. "I look forward to the role the community colleges will have in the Vision for Rural Illinois strategic plan."

At each listening post, participants will be asked to rank the importance of issues pertaining to health care, education, infrastructure, business climate, workforce training and quality of life. Listening post participants also will be broken into smaller work groups charged with developing solutions to these various issues.

Similar forums 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.

"These listening posts are important to policymakers and the residents of Illinois," said IIRA Director Christopher Merrett. “Because participants will be able to talk to the Lt. Governor as well as other rural community stakeholders, this will put a human face on government policy.”

The listening post questions were developed using the IIRA’s 2010 Rural Life Poll, which asked over 1,000 rural residents about the issues most important to them. Respondents listed affordable health care, quality of schools, access and availability of health insurance, the ability of local schools to prepare students for college, and the adequacy of school funding as top concerns.

Simon will be joined at the Peoria listening post by fellow Rural Affairs Council members Colleen Callahan, the state director of USDA Rural Development, and Mark Rothert, the executive director of the Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development. The post is scheduled for 4 p.m. at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center, Room-Salon D, 500 Hamilton Blvd. in Peoria.

The remaining listening posts will be held in Carbondale, Freeport, Gibson City, Mattoon and Quincy. For more information on the Rural Listening Posts, please visit www.ltgov.il.gov.