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Simon brings rural listening tour to Southern Illinois 

 
Demand for skilled workers, education atop the agenda              

CARBONDALE – April 5, 2012. As chair of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, Lt. Governor Sheila Simon continued a listening tour of rural Illinois in her hometown today and collected ideas on how to improve education and employment in non-metro areas of the state.            

The forum marked the second 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 for citizens, elected officials, business people and non-profit leaders. Feedback will be collected by the IIRA and used to develop a strategic plan for the council and its state agency members.            

Simon said opportunities exist for rural Illinois citizens to work in manufacturing, but as Illinois’ largest industry becomes more technologically advanced, the skill set needed by manufacturers is changing and many jobs are going unfilled. 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.              

“We can bridge this skills gap through education. As a state, we are working with employers, high schools, community colleges and public universities to create pathways from school to work and from college to career,” Simon said.              

To keep pace with a changing economy, Illinois needs 60 percent of working-age adults to have a college degree or credential by 2025, Simon said. But in the 66 counties classified as “non-metro” by the IIRA, only a quarter of working-age adults have a two-year degree or higher and average wages in non-metro areas are nearly $20,000 less than in metro areas.            

The skills gap is a particularly pressing problem for Southern Illinois manufacturers, said Kathy Lively, the executive director of Man-Tra-Con Corporation, and a participant on the listening post. Man-Tra-Con is a non-profit in Marion that serves as the administrative agent for federal Workforce Investment Act funds that the organization uses to provide employment services and trainings programs in Franklin, Jackson, Jefferson, Perry and Williamson counties.            

Man-Tra-Con has helped over 85 percent of the employees displaced after Maytag closed a manufacturing plant in Herrin in 2006. Workers needed to learn new skills that would help them compete in today’s economy. That included math, technology and critical thinking skills, Lively said.            

“Each day we work with people eager to go to work who remain unemployed and employers who have positions yet cannot find qualified candidates,” Lively said. “The skills gap seems most prevalent in the manufacturing and machining sectors, which mean workforce programs are critically important to the future of our region’s economy.”              

To ensure workers have the skills needed for 21st Century jobs, Simon is pursuing a complete college reform package that aims to improve college and career readiness in math. This includes Senate Bill 3244 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. 

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.            

Upcoming listening posts will be held in Freeport, Gibson City, Mattoon and Quincy. For more information on the rural listening posts, please visit www.ltgov.illinois.gov.