Officials unveil plan for economic growth in Will County area
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org March 28, 2014 7:28PM
Brother James Gaffney (from left), president of Lewis University; U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-11th; and Will County Executive Larry Walsh discuss job creation and economic development as Foster launches his Project Growth plan. | Susan DeMar Lafferty~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 1, 2014 7:12AM
If anything is going to spur job and business growth in the Will County region, it’s going to take a joint effort between business, education and government leaders. That is the goal of U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-11th, who on Friday launched his Project Growth with a group of community leaders.
His plan will focus on strengthening the middle class, investing in transportation and infrastructure, having a well-trained, well-educated workforce and supporting manufacturing.
“The more complicated our economy gets, the more complicated job descriptions are, the more we have to coordinate,” Foster said. “This is something we don’t always do well as a country as well as individually. That is why I am bringing people together, to identify areas where we can work together better.”
On Friday, Foster brought together Will County Executive Larry Walsh; John Greuling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development; Brother James Gaffney, president of Lewis University; Steve Schilke, of the Illinois Department of Transportation; and two business leaders to provide an employer’s perspective.
Employers said there is a need for educated workers, such as engineers, but employees must also be team players, with good communication skills and who can think creatively.
“Internships are critical,” said Nancy Baldwin, of Nanophase Technologies, based in Romeoville and Burr Ridge.
The manufacturing industry is facing an aging workforce and a younger workforce that does not have a lot of interest in manufacturing, said Joan Wisniewski, of Bolingbrook-based Pactiv. Many high schools have eliminated industrial technology programs, which caused this lack of interest, she said.
Both Baldwin and Wisniewski emphasized the need to work with schools to develop a properly trained workforce.
Gaffney said Lewis University plans to host a summit next year with business and education leaders to determine the specific needs of the business community.
They have to raise awareness in the business community and educators have to provide a broad range of programs at every level to have a well-trained workforce, he said.
“This area is increasingly operating in a global economy,” Gaffney said.
The workforce is much more diverse than it was years ago, Greuling said. Future job growth will be in transportation and warehousing, which is expected to increase 30 percent between now and 2023, followed by real estate, business management and health care, each forecast to increase 27 percent, he said.
The unemployment rate in Will County is 9.8 percent, and there were more than 5,200 jobs posted by the Workforce Investment Board in Will County, he said.
“The challenge is to match job openings with skilled workers,” he said.
Schilke, of IDOT, outlined all of the road improvement projects the state has in the works to improve accessibility in this region, which has seen a lot of growth. He cited the construction of the Illiana Corridor, the widening of 159th Street in Homer Glen and Interstate 80 from Ridge Road to U.S. 30, and U.S. 30 in Plainfield, and improvements to Route 59 in Naperville and the interchange at Weber Road and I-55.
According to Foster’s Project Growth, to strengthen the middle class, he wants to raise the federal minimum wage, extend emergency unemployment insurance and fund the Workforce Investment Act to offer grants to adults and dislocated workers to get job skills.
Transportation and infrastructure are “absolutely essential” to ensure that businesses have the resources they need, Foster said. He wants to complete the Illiana tollway, improve waterways and roads, and invest in public transportation.
To ensure a well-trained workforce, his plan calls for expanding STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to train the workforce for 21st century jobs, and build partnerships between schools and businesses to close the skills gap.
“You picked the right county to start this,” Walsh said. “These are issues we talk about on a daily basis. Will County is at the forefront in moving forward on a number of these issues.”