Trade work hurting for employees, Central Illinois programs work to fill the gap

Digital Originals

CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WMBD) — Trades are hurting for employees and school programs are hurting for students, according to Spoon River College President Curt Oldfield.

He said it has been difficult to find men ages 18-25 to get involved with their trade programs. In Central Illinois, there are numerous programs that look to get those jobs filled, and some start at the high school level.

The Woodruff Career and Technical Center, located in the building of the former high school it’s named after, offers 16 different programs for juniors and seniors in District 150 high schools.

Internships are offered to the students, who then are paid through grants from the career and technical center.

“Right now, the majority of our students are in the culinary arts and construction fields. We have quite a few in cosmetology as well. Those are the programs that have been around the longest,” said Principal Ernie Spiker. “As we’re adding new programs, we’re trying to build those up. We added four new programs this year.”

Programs designed to fit students’ needs

Over at Spoon River College in Canton, President Curt Oldfield said dual-credit courses are keeping 19 high school kids busy. Among the offered courses is welding, which allows students to graduate with a welding certificate before they even receive a high school diploma.

“We really try to work hard to find scholarships to support the students, to enroll them and eliminate any barriers for them to be able to go right to the workforce,” Oldfield said.

Students can enroll in programs lasting six to eight weeks for a specific program, or spend two years at the junior college to earn their Associate’s Degrees. Programs are designed to fit the needs of the student.

The Tri-County Urban League is a local organization trying to help align people with employment opportunities through training programs, as well. President and CEO Dr. Dawn Harris Jeffries said a plethora of employment services are offered to help a variety of clients.

Each individual who signs up for the program is assigned a counselor who assesses, coordinates individual skills, and matches their capabilities to available jobs.

Daycare is even provided for those who need to go to work or get to an interview.

Services are not limited to just one age group, but to anyone who is in need of assistance in Central Illinois.

As workforce needs change, so do trade programs

Woodruff is also adapting to the changing needs of the workforce, especially with a renewable energy program the school recently introduced. Students learn about solar power, climate change, and the like, while also learning soft skills, such as resume writing, communication, and teamwork.

Last year, 68 students were involved in an internship, 23 in job shadowing, and another 58 were involved in a summer work experience.

This year, 32 students are interning, with more set to begin during the spring semester.

Post high school, there are opportunities for training in the trades as well. At Heartland Community College in Normal, there has been growth, specifically with minority groups getting involved in the trades.

Before students earn their certification, they are allowed internships, apprenticeships, job shadows, and even interviews to allow them a chance to decide if the job is a good fit for them or not.

Once those students secure their certification, about 90% stay in the area, according to Curt Rendall, the executive director of the Work-Ready Program Development and Innovation.

“There’s a lot of growth that’s happening and a lot of demand for workers. At the same time, there’s so much opportunity in welding, business technology, and our data science programs.”

Curt Rendall, Work-Ready Program Development and Innovation Executive director at Heartland community COLLEGE

Oldfield reported 93% of Spoon River College’s trade students are going right into the workforce after graduation, with the diesel program being the most popular. About 60 students are enrolling on average per year.

Work-ready scholarships meet local workforce needs

Yet, despite the increase in growth, it can still be difficult to get those students into the school, specifically at Heartland, Rendall said. Those looking to enroll in a trade cannot be awarded Pell Grants, which are federal funding-reserved for low-income students.

Pell Grants are reserved for students taking 15 credit hours or more, and the trade programs do not meet those qualifications.

However, “work ready” scholarships are available for students who are enrolled in programs designed to get them into the workforce immediately upon graduation. The program length depends on the student, but typically, they range from eight weeks to 12 months.

“We have a lot of really great programs here at the college aligned with the industry. In particular, we’re really excited about the manufacturing jobs in the manufacturing industry right now,” Rendall said.

Manufacturing is continuing its rise in popularity at Spoon River, too. The majority of the students, Oldfield said, end up at major companies in the area such as John Deere, Hiel Trucking, Martin Tractor Inc., Caterpillar, Dot Foods, and Midwest Control Products.

Despite the new push for jobs in manufacturing, those businesses are not the only ones benefitting from local programs.

Expanding apprenticeship programs to include management courses, professions, and IT is the new goal at the Tri-County Urban League.

President Harris Jeffries said the organization has a “job readiness program” that can last one week, two weeks, or six weeks depending on the person’s level of readiness for the job world.

“Some may have a GED, some may not, some may have college, some may not, and so we will meet that person at their skill level to then upskill them so that they’re ready for the workforce,” Harris Jeffries said.

The Urban League partners with many Central Illinois companies to get people jobs that are mostly in trades, she said. Ameren, Paradice, Caterpillar, and small businesses in the area have all benefitted from the program.

“It doesn’t really matter the field. We are here to prepare them for the workforce,” Harris Jeffries said.

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