Speaker challenges Danville to train workers for future skills

DANVILLE — About 9 percent of the local workforce is unemployed, yet openings for full-time, good-paying jobs with benefits in the Danville area are difficult to fill, according to local economic development officials.

The challenge is finding workers with the skills to fill the positions, and it's not a problem unique to Danville or Illinois or even the United States — and it's going to get worse, according to one expert.

Edward E. Gordon, an internationally-recognized writer, researcher, speaker and consultant on America's future workforce, said the number of low-skilled jobs continues to decrease while the number of high-skilled jobs increases. At the same time, there are not enough people in the workforce prepared to meet the demand of the high-skilled jobs, because the country's education-to-workforce pipeline is failing.

"This is a serious problem," said Gordon, who was the keynote speaker at Vermilion Advantage's annual directors and members meeting Wednesday afternoon at Danville Area Community College. Gordon was addressing members of Vermilion Advantage, who include local employers, business representatives and educational and civic leaders. The membership also ushered in its new slate of officers and directors, including Jim Anderson with Old National Bank as board chairman, replacing Wes Anderson of Anderson Electric.

According to Gordon, more than 90 million people in the workforce lack reading, writing and math skills. The United States, he said, has created a large number of people unfit for available high-skilled jobs, and the situation will worsen as baby boomers retire.

Under current circumstances, he said, by 2020, there will be 123 million high-skilled positions and only 43 million qualified to fill them, and in comparison, there will be 44 million low-skilled jobs and 142 million qualified to fill those positions.

A January 2011 survey of local employers by Vermilion Advantage found that many skilled positions will be added this year and in coming years, in addition to those that will need to be filled after retirements. Local employers will need 14 mechanical engineers between now and January 2013, five electrical engineers, and more than 230 machine operators with math skills to fill positions that will be newly created in addition to retirements in those areas.

Gordon called for business innovation, a focus on continual retraining of current workers, and collaboration between business and education to focus on developing students with the knowledge and ability to meet the demand for high-skilled jobs and adapt to changes in the high-skilled jobs sector.

He said such a workforce does not require only workers with four-year degrees, but employees who are willing to be trained and retrained.

"The most important capital you have is the human capital. Technology is useless without it," Gordon said.

Regional talent innovation networks are one key to solving the problem, said Gordon, adding that Vermilion County is headed in the right direction with public-private partnerships through Vermilion Advantage that steer local students in the right direction. Programs like the global careers and profession program at Danville High School help students identify career paths and post-secondary options that best fit their interests, strengths and values.

Gordon said business must move toward the concept that investing in retraining of the current workforce and development of students into a more skilled workforce are capital investments, just like upgrading buildings and equipment.

Gordon reviewed several innovative programs across the United States, including Danville, where public and private collaborations are preparing and matching unemployed workers, students and others for high-skilled jobs.

He said the programs in Vermilion County are a very good start.

"But you could do more," he said.

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