As I’ve talked about before, the biggest threat to Stephenson County’s future prosperity is a lack of qualified workers.  This stems from both our shrinking and aging population base and from a skills mismatch with our current employers.  The effects of this problem include fewer resourced people to support our local businesses, lower real estate values and the very real possibility that some of our jobs will leave as employers decide to exit this market.  This is not “sky is falling” rhetoric—it is real and immediate.

What do we propose to do about it?  This week, nearly 40 community leaders, from employers to educators to federal government training personnel, came together to learn about the Greater Freeport Partnership’s Workforce Initiative.  This initiative consists of two parts—Recruitment (short-term) and Community Career Pathways (long-term).  Both committees will include major employers and small businesses.

The work of the Recruitment Task Force will be to identify all those potential employees who may need assistance to enter the workforce.  The groups might be unemployed, underemployed, returning citizens, those with disabilities, and others who experience challenges such as a lack of affordable childcare and transportation.  In addition, this group will brainstorm on strategies to attract more residents to the county.  The Greater Freeport Partnership will use its resources to research supporting data and to launch a marketing campaign, as well continue to work to connect service providers to those who need assistance to enter and succeed in our workforce.

The Community Career Pathways Task Force will initially assist the Freeport School District in identifying Career Academies, to start this fall with a Freshman Academy.  CareerTEC, which currently provides many vocational opportunities for our high school students throughout the County is a key player.  Highland Community College will be involved in this group as well, in order to explore ways to continue the educational pathways for our students.  Deep employer involvement is a key component, as we strive to provide an educated, skilled workforce for our important County businesses.  The Greater Freeport Partnership will continue to facilitate discussions and employer connections.

You may rightly wonder what is different about this initiative from past good work done by various group.  I would submit that today’s rock-bottom unemployment and demographics downward trend provides an extreme sense of urgency to start producing results.  In addition, the collaboration exhibited by community groups over the last two years by the change in Freeport’s form of city government, the consolidation of the agencies leading to the Greater Freeport Partnership, and the work of the Collaborate Freeport group has laid a strong foundation and example for success as we move forward.  The Freeport School District’s courageous decision to adopt a new model for the high school, as well as Highland Community College’s recent receipt of a grant with Rock Valley College to explore career pathways, points to a good outcome for the education and training of our future workers.  I am highly optimistic and energized to work with our partners.

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