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Plan seeks to improve job market through education 

Bloominton Pantagraph
February 9, 2012
By Phyllis Coulter

BLOOMINGTON — Helping Illinois residents get jobs through better education in science, technology, engineering and math is the goal of the Illinois Pathways Initiative, a new partnership rolled out Thursday with the help of Gov. Pat Quinn and Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon.

“It’s so important to have this partnership” between leaders in business and education, Quinn said during the announcement at State Farm Insurance Cos.’s corporate headquarters in Bloomington.

The new program to promote what are called the STEM fields will be funded by $3.2 million in federal Race to the Top education reform money.

The effort is part of Quinn’s declared mission to ensure that at least 60 percent of Illinois adults earn college degrees or career certificates by 2025. The figure now is 43 percent in Illinois, which still is better than the national average, he said.

“It’s the equivalent of landing a man on the moon,” Quinn said.

To achieve this, STEM Learning Exchanges will form statewide public-private networks in various career fields such as health, agriculture, finance, construction, transportation and energy. They will bring together primary, secondary and higher education institutions, employers, industry associations and labor groups to provide resources such as internships and mentoring relationships in each field.

“It’s a game changer, locally, regionally and nationally,” said Duane Farrington, a State Farm senior vice president, of the proposal.

There regularly are 140,000 unfilled jobs in Illinois, even at times of high unemployment, but workers lack the skills to fill them, Quinn said. “We need to make matches” of jobs and skilled workers, Quinn said.

Rick Stephens, a senior vice president for Chicago-based Boeing Co. and chairman of the Illinois Business Roundtable, agreed there isn’t a labor shortage but a skills shortage.

There is a need for both technically trained and university educated workers, Stephens said. Some skilled industry workers make $60,000 to $70,000 right out of high school, for example.

Spending money the right way on reforming education is the way to improve the job market, Quinn said. “We can’t cut our way to a better economy,” Quinn said.

As an example of what future schools can do in career preparation, Quinn introduced Wheeling High School Principal Lazaro Lopez along with two graduates and a current Wheeling student. Lopez described the dozen career pathways offered at the school.

David Greer, now a University of Illinois student studying electrical engineering, said what he learned in high school prepared him well for college.

“I did not have to wait until college to get real engineering experience,” said Greer, who was recognized by President Barack Obama this week for his achievements in a robotics club.

Fellow graduate Alejandro Barrera had below-average grades when he started high school, but as a senior he found his passion — and an internship — through an advanced machining course. He now has a job with good pay and attends college part time.

“It’s good to be me,” he told the assembled business and education leaders.

When Aline Bardak started high school, she had no idea what career she wanted, but the program at Wheeling helped her discover health care. She said she has 60 hours of work experience at a nursing home so far this year and became a certified nursing assistant — “and I’m only a junior (in high school).”

After the official launching, Heartland Community College President Allen Goben said the governor’s message meshes with what the college is doing in Normal with its Guided Path to Success program. He said the resources this program offers through uniting people in kindergarten to grade 12 education, business, industry and high education will really make a difference.