JOLIET — Joliet Junior College was the site for discussion Wednesday among national, state and local leaders on resolving the skills gap among workers.
Appearing on campus with U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, was U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Christopher Lu. Both of them joined JJC officials, state elected officials and local business leaders for a roundtable discussion on ways to close the skill gap and increase employment.
Before the discussion, Lu said he talked with employers who are ready to hire but can’t find workers with the skills needed for the job. Likewise, there are workers looking for jobs but lack skills to obtain them.
“This is the challenge that we face at the Department of Labor,” Lu said. “My bosses characterize … our old workforce training system as ‘train and pray.’ We train people for jobs and pray they get them. We need to change that model.”
Foster said if this discussion was taking place four years ago, it would have been more downbeat, referring to the economic crisis years ago.
“What we're at least trying to do here is fill the skills gap,” he said.
Will County has become a “jobs engine” with thousands of new jobs across industries coming to the area in the past several years, said John Grueling, president and chief executive officer for the Will County Center for Economic and Development.
But two concerns he’s heard from businesses was if there would be enough supply of workers and if they had needed skills.
“Employers today are turning inward and doing their own training on-site,” Grueling said.
Pat Fera, Workforce Investment Board of Will County director, said her organization works with employers who routinely give input on what skills they’re looking for even though those needs are changing constantly.
She said the workforce board also works with JJC to help address the skills gap as well as job experience.
“JJC was amazing in doing some accelerated training,” she said.
Although many vocational training programs are aimed at people in their late teens and older, Greg Dover, GAD Group Technology president, said more focus on job training should be on early teens.
“The employer can work with the local school system to ensure the vocational program is on track but its got to start when the kids are 13, 14, 15,” Dover said. “When we get that person at 19 years old, they need to make some money, they’re not able to read on an 11th grade level yet, math skills are missing. The employer can’t take control or do that part.”
He said companies are focused on using their resources for profit and if they have to “do the education process over again, that’s going to be a losing battle.”
When it came to vocational training, Lu said other countries have a model that allows for people to receive a vocation education and return years later to receive more education in other fields if needed.
“We’re not as nimble in our system,” he said.