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Simon says linking education, employment is key to region 

 
Chicago Tribume
October 19, 2012
By Ashley Rueff

Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said the south suburbs are ahead of the game when it comes to linking educators and employers, a strategy she said is important for driving economic development.

Citing the South Metropolitan Higher Education Consortium--a network of a dozen higher education institutions that work together in the south suburbs — Simon said the region already has a strong foundation for better training workers to meet the needs of area employers.

"You guys have a tremendous edge in terms of what you are doing together," she said.

Strengthening links between educators and employers to better prepare the workforce was one highlight of Simon's address as the guest speaker at a luncheon hosted by the Chicago Southland Chamber of Commerce in Tinley Park last week.

Simon, who is a point person for several educational reform initiatives in the state, explained how her office is working toward the Illinois P-20 Council goal of getting college degrees and career certificates in the hands of 60 percent of the state's working-age adults by 2025. Currently, the rate is at about 41 percent.

"While we've got a head start on a lot of other states, we've got a long way to go," she said.

By increasing collaboration between schools and employers, a venture undertaken by the Illinois Pathways initiative, Simon said educators can better understand how to prepare students for the workforce. Simon said it's estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 employment opportunities in the state are unfilled because employers can't find workers with the skills they require.

"This is in a state with unacceptably high unemployment, right?" she said. "We have some room to grow."

Specifically, she said workers often lack the math skills some manufacturers look for in an employee. To try and fill the gap, Simon said she wants to distribute a statewide model of math curriculum options to help middle school and high school educators prepare students for college-level math.

High school students in Illinois are required to complete three years of math curriculum, which Simon said means college-bound students may not be enrolled in a math class the year before they begin college courses.

"Use the strengths of the school that you're in, but make sure students don't take a vacation from math in their senior year, because that's what the challenge is," she said.

John Currier, board chairman with the chamber, said he often hears from south suburban businesses that they need a stronger pool of employees.

"We need to have a good, strong workforce in our area to help members grow their businesses," he said. "We have a number of chamber members who say they're having a hard time finding qualified employees, especially ones in manufacturing."

Part of that puzzle is also helping students understand their options for career training and how much it might cost them. Simon has been advocating for a system that would provide basic information about learning institutions to help prospective students compare and narrow their options.

"We have some room to provide better information so people can provide better decisions, because the cost of college is going up in a big way," she said. "We want to make sure that when students leave higher education, they leave it with the option to do whatever they want to do."