Vermilion officials hear of growing need for skilled workers

DANVILLE – How are John Deere tractors, BMW cars, Chiquita bananas and Kawasaki motorcycles connected with Vermilion County?

Companies here do business with them, and those companies are looking for skilled workers for good-paying jobs, such as engineers, graphic designers, computer programmers and more.

Kevin Stroud, owner of the NexLAN computer software business in downtown Danville, said it's a challenge for him to find skilled workers for his small business, which employs only eight people but has 100 clients across the United States, including Delmonte, Kawasaki, Chiquita and Fidelity Investments.

NexLAN provides mid-tier accounting software for those companies and others with annual sales in the $5 million to $500 million range. Stroud said struggling to find skilled workers limits the growth of his business considerably.

"Danville doesn't have a job shortage. We have a skills shortage," he said.

That theme emerged multiple times during an elected officials workshop Thursday afternoon at Danville Area Community College, 2000 E. Main St., Danville. The event was sponsored by Vermilion Advantage, the county's economic development office.

Several local company officials, including Stroud, spoke to about 75 elected, business and government officials, providing them with an in-depth look at what their companies do, challenges they face and what the local community can do to help maintain and develop the local economy.

Officials with NexLAN, ThyssenKrupp, Trigard and Greenwood Plastics all reiterated that a skilled work force is necessary, and it's important for the local community to foster an environment in which students have the opportunity to get the education needed to prepare them to fill those openings.

Company officials also emphasized that the community needs to be a place where skilled workers and professionals from outside the county want to relocate, and some mentioned that higher property taxes not only discourage businesses but also workers who relocate here.

Brad Irle, executive vice president with ThyssenKrupp Crankshaft in Danville, said the corporation chose the Danville forging operation over Fostoria, Ohio, for its current $40 million expansion project because of state and local incentives and location. Danville is closer to the crankshaft division's customers.

Irle and his counterpart, Carlos Dias, vice president of operations at ThyssenKrupp Presta and Systrand Presta, also in Danville, impressed upon the audience that their competition for money to invest in their plants is intense within their own international corporation, which has operations all over the world. And they also face pressure from international competitors, and from existing customers to find ways to improve their products and provide them more efficiently and cheaply.

"We must continue to prove ourselves every day, and we must come up with new ways to be competitive," Irle said.

And developing, finding and retaining skilled workers is a vital part of that, according to Irle and the other presenters.

Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said it was interesting to him that every company official who spoke mentioned that they are looking for skilled workers.

He said those comments diminish the "street talk" that there are no good jobs in Danville. He said the jobs available are not the jobs the community used to have, however. They are jobs that require certain skills, he added.

"We need to train and retrain our community for the jobs that are available," he said.

Based on a survey of local employers through Vermilion Advantage, Eisenhauer said, even without any new employers coming to the county, the survey revealed that 2,000 new jobs would be created by 2010.

"What we need is a greater skilled work force ready to fill those jobs," he said.

As for property taxes, Eisenhauer said that while local property taxes may be a little higher in comparison with those in other Illinois communities, other costs must be compared as well. Some communities have utility taxes, which Danville does not, or higher sales tax, or in Indiana, a higher income tax rather than higher property taxes.

"You have to be cautious when you compare and need to look more globally at all costs," he said.

Jim McMahon, Vermilion County board chairman, said local government officials do listen when companies talk about property taxes. He said the county strives to keep property taxes as low as possible, and in last year's budget, did not increase the county's portion of property taxes levied.

It plans to do the same for next year.

"The county takes a serious look at the property tax issue," he said. "Raising property taxes is the last thing we want to do."

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