Work Samples

  • Megann Horstead

Will County economic development on the rise


A new report released by the Workforce Investment Board of Will County shows that economic development in Will County has grown in more ways than one during the second quarter of 2018.

A snapshot is generated quarterly and is used to help inform and guide area schools, businesses and training providers in supporting residents.

“It’s saying that jobs in healthcare, transportation and logistics, manufacturing, and administrative support are among the highest anticipated industries as far as growth,” said Caroline Portlock, director of the Workforce Investment Board of Will County. “They continue to be areas of high growth and demand for Will County.”

Portlock said it is not a surprise that transportation is one of the highest-growing sectors in Will County.

The communities of Joliet and Elwood help make the county home to the nation’s largest inland port.

“What we do is we train [people] for jobs in high-growth industries,” Portlock said. “We want to make sure when they receive training or schooling they can get a job. We work closely with the Will County Center for Economic Development and local employers to make sure what people have what they need to be successful. We work with Joliet Junior College and the University of St. Francis to make sure they’re taught, or trained, in what they need. It’s up to the industry to provide the higher level specificities needed for the job thereafter.”

Portlock said the collaboration between area schools and training providers has stepped up over the years, and it allows students to be set up better for success.

“In my time at Will County, it’s improved,” she said. “The lines of communication have opened up between schools and businesses the last 4 to 6 years, at which point we were bouncing back from the recession. There were a lot of silos. We’re breaking down those barriers. In the last 4 to 6 years, it’s gotten better.”

The economic development report for the second quarter of 2018 indicates that Will County’s unemployment rate fell to 4.5 percent, a slight decrease from the prior period. That statistic places the county in line with the State of Illinois’ average.

Doug Pryor, vice president of economic development for the Will County Center for Economic Development, said the data is very encouraging to see.

“We’re in a period of time where unemployment is low locally, statewide and nationwide,” he said. “It’s indicative of people finding good career matches in the local economy.”

Pryor said he and other community leaders talk a lot about workforce development, what people need today, and what they will need in the future.

He continued, ”The truth is, when they think of the future of the workforce, we think not only of new technology”, but also the real world applications it can be applied to.

Pryor credits the collaborative work of educational institutions, such as Joliet Junior College, for responding to the ever-changing landscape that new technology creates.

When asked how the college balances the need to respond to the economy's ever-changing demands for skilled workers with continuing traditions, Joliet Junior College President Dr. Judy Mitchell said it takes “unlimited imagination to rethink the purpose and function of higher education.”

“We’ve survived and thrived over 117 years, not because of our historical foundation as the nation’s first public community college, but because those before us understood that to thrive in fluctuating and challenging environments, we needed to understand our world, and understand the changing educational needs of that world,” Mitchell said. “Our actions each day require thoughtful and inclusive decision-making in a variety of challenging situations. It’s important to remain mission centric, always looking to community needs and prioritizing student success as the ultimate end goal.”

College data indicates that graduates can expect a total lifetime earnings gain of about $535,000. That makes for an additional $12,000 per year from age 20 to 65 and a 41 percent increase over the average total lifetime earnings of those who have not completed a community college program.

Amy Murphy, dean of applied arts, workforce education and training for Joliet Junior College, said she feels the industry has been very receptive to the college’s efforts to help foster a skilled, knowledgeable workforce.

“I think that’s reflective of the scholarships that the industry is funding for students,” she said. “I think they’re appreciative of how fast we can respond getting programming up.”

Dr. Randall Fletcher, vice president of academic affairs for Joliet Junior College, said that equally as important, the college prides itself on being proactive rather than reactive to the industry.

Murphy said that as industry changes and modifies, the college goes back to add and enhance its curriculum to make sure the skillsets that students are getting reflect what the industry tells the college.

Joliet Junior College is preparing to launch a medical assistant program in the fall of 2019.

Murphy said that program is being introduced to meet a growing need.

At Joliet Junior College, technical and liberal arts programs currently range from manufacturing and welding to automotive and nursing.

“I think what JJC has to offer is very encompassing of all the different skillsets needed,” Murphy said.

In addition, Joliet Junior College partners with Joliet Township High School District 204 to support high school students in pursuing dual-credit opportunities.

Karla Guseman, assistant superintendent for Joliet Township High School District 204, said they pride themselves on working with a number of entities to help in developing a skilled, knowledgeable workforce for Will County.

“We’re partnering with a lot of different groups to make we stay up on the pulse of what’s going on, so that when an opportunity presents itself for our students, we’re ready and able to get that information to our students,” she said.

Guseman said the District relies, in part, on the quarterly economic development report to support students and their needs.

“Those reports, I think, are really helpful to make sure our career academies and our pathways are still appropriate for students, but the other thing we look at is our own students’ interests,” she said.

For example, if students demonstrate a lack of growth in certain areas, it doesn’t mean that the District immediately stops supporting students in that field of study, Guseman said. It’s something that is monitored, and the quarterly economic development report can be helpful.

“I would say since we’ve structured we have more of a focus on college and career, and that was about 12 years ago,” Guseman said. “We’ve always been focused on the skills and knowledge that students need to be successful, but the idea of career and college opportunities, we have more focus on both now.”

Guseman said she feels the business landscape in Will County does a good job of reflecting upon the needs, desires and skillset of the District’s students.

“I think our largest academy at both schools is our health and medicine academies, and there’s always a need in healthcare,” she said. “There’s also a lot of interest in [Science Technology Math and Engineering] careers. We have a lot of need in manufacturing.”

In addition, the District reviews its curriculum regularly to stay on top of advancements in technology to help expose students to different fields of study. Over the years, they have incorporated tools, such as 3-D printers, plasma cutters and welding simulators, to help support the classroom experience.

Guseman said she thinks local business partners are excited to work with the District and its students.

Joliet Township High School District 204 had 13 students secure paid internships with local businesses last summer.

“Not only are we seeking outside [opportunities for our students,] but we’re also looking within,” Guseman said. “It’s really all about those career development opportunities for students. I think the business partners are very supportive, and we’re trying to expand it.”

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