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Want to create good jobs? Then fund higher education

Published: Monday, March 20, 2017 4:16 p.m. CDT
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John Greuling

The new national employment numbers released last week seem to bode well, even for the State of Illinois.

In February, U.S. employers added 235,000 jobs as the national unemployment rate dropped to 4.7 percent.

And workers took home more cash in 2016 with hourly wages for the typical employee going up 3.1 percent. In Illinois, we added 3,700 jobs in December and January, revised upward from an earlier reported loss of 16,700 jobs.

Shouldn’t we be smiling?

Of course not. We know the Illinois numbers are not good at all. The state’s unemployment rate is a full percentage point higher than the national rate; Illinois is still 31,900 jobs short of its peak employment level reached in September 2000.

In fact, according to the state’s own Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, “if Illinois had grown at the same rate as the nation since the beginning of the recovery, we would have added an additional 222,700 jobs.”

People (our workforce) are leaving the state in record numbers. And companies are choosing not to grow or come here. Neither wants to be on the hook when the tax bill comes due. Our state economic development strategy looks inward, not outward. Moving headquarters from downstate and the suburbs to Chicago is a zero sum in this Monopoly game of a state.

Will County has been doing much better than the rest of the state in business expansion and attraction. More than 8,000 new jobs alone were created in the county this past year with more than $1 billion of private investment in commercial and industrial developments.

2017 is looking just as strong. When the CED meets with companies looking to expand, it’s not incentives that makes us attractive. It’s our location, available land, skilled workforce, vast resources and quality of life that brings jobs here.

That includes our K-12 schools and our colleges and universities. Employers know they can find the workers they need in our county with a strong work ethic and are diverse and well educated. But this is at risk.

The current budget crisis is putting our higher education system (and Illinois) at a competitive disadvantage.

In Will County alone, with the state not funding the Monetary Award Program (MAP), a scholarship program for students that need financial assistance, thousands of students attending Will County colleges and universities could be losing their future.

Without this aid, most of these students cannot stay in school. While several of our institutions are replacing this funding from other sources, that cannot go on forever. Last year alone, it’s estimated that more than $10 million came from the schools to offset lost MAP dollars.

Every dollar spent by a college or university to backfill the missing state money is a dollar that can’t be spent on curriculum, faculty retention, research and capital improvements in school facilities.

Governor’s State University, the only state university with a presence in Will County, recently announced a tuition increase of 15 percent and the elimination of 22 degree programs. Joliet Junior College just this past week agreed to a tuition bump as well.

Our schools face the same uncertainties our businesses face: How do you plan for the future without knowing how much you will be underfunded or overtaxed?

I don’t envy our elected officials in Springfield with the challenges they face. And if not having a state budget is the “new normal,” then so be it. But to exclude the higher education patches from this fiscal quilt we are living with is wrong, and it puts our economic future at a higher risk than it already is. This needs to be fixed.

• John Greuling is president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development.

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