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Local News

Greuling: Illinois needs to walk the walk with economic development plan

John Greuling
John Greuling

Illinois is losing population. Between 2010 and 2018, our state’s population dropped by about 90,000 people. Oh, that’s not too bad, considering everything (taxes, pensions, corruption), you say? What if Illinois was one of only three states to lose population over that period, the others being Connecticut (-1,432) and West Virginia (-47,162)? During that period Illinois dropped to the sixth most populous state, changing places with Pennsylvania, which now is number five.

True, even though the population loss in Illinois was a modest -0.7%, our neighboring states who compete with us for jobs and investment saw meaningful growth: Michigan (+1.1%), Wisconsin (2.2%), Missouri (2.3%), Indiana (3.2%), Kentucky (3.0%) and Iowa (3.6%). Who would have thought a few years ago Illinois growth (or lack of it) would be surpassed by any of these states?

The true tale of the tape, however, is not just the net growth or loss, it’s the outmigration of residents, many of working age, that we have seen over the past eight years – 761,827 Illinois residents have moved out of the state. Only one state had more leave – New York at 1,167,600 – and yet they still had a net population increase of 164,107 people (+.08%).

Why does this matter? It matters because Illinois needs to start behaving like the economic engine of the Midwest that we are. It matters because we have companies wanting to take advantage of our location, education, infrastructure and access to market assets but can’t compete because of increasing taxes, workers compensation costs and overreaching regulations. It matters because as new companies are coming in the front door, our future workforce is leaving out the back door, challenging the notion that Illinois will always have enough workers that are skilled, reliable and available to fill new job openings.

The good news is Illinois still is a global powerhouse: In 2018, 116,000 new businesses were formed, an increase of 12% year over year and sixth in the nation in this category. Today, Illinois has the fifth largest state GDP in the U.S. and is the 19th largest economy (if we were a country) in the world. And while we may have lost 90,000 residents since 2010, we have added more than 506,000 private sector jobs in that same time period. Not too shabby.

So how do we re-calibrate to support strong business growth and expansion throughout the state and reverse the outmigration trends that will cripple us over the long haul? Gov. JB Pritzker has a plan.

The governor just released “A Plan to Revitalize the Illinois Economy and Build the Workforce of the Future,” which “outlines a vision to reinvigorate our economy and spur equitable growth.” This is the first new economic development plan for the state since 2013 under Governor Quinn. It’s a bold plan, identifying key plan elements that Illinois can benefit from. The state will:

• Provide world-class customer service to business and industry, identifying needs and providing solutions as they market Illinois to the world.

• Build the workforce of the future by increasing the skills of the Illinois workforce through collaboration between education and business.

• Win in key industries that will have the largest economic impact in the future: Agri-Business and Agri-Tech, Energy, Information Technology, Life Sciences and Healthcare, Manufacturing and Transportation and Logistics.

The plan spells out programs and policies (and funding) that will be needed to implement the vision. It’s a big plan, with lots of moving parts and it’s expensive. It is strong on the program side, not so much on the policy side.

While most things in the plan, if implemented, would improve the economic vitality of the state, we need more than improving how we sell the state, how we attract, train and keep workers and which are the selected industry sectors that we should focus on. We need to take a serious look at fixing our long-term budget, pension, property tax and workers compensation issues among others. What business wants most of all today is certainty – and Illinois is not providing a lot of that right now.

The plan is a good start at talking the talk. Now we need to walk the walk.

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

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