EAST PEORIA — When Rick Swan, director of the East Peoria Chamber of Commerce, introduced Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey, the keynote speaker at the Chamber’s annual banquet, he said he likes her “get-to-the-point and get-after-it style.”

Quirk-Bailey joined Illinois Central College in July 2016 as its fifth president.

“I really like her approach to things, it’s aggressive and get after it,” he said.

What Quirk-Bailey wants to “get after” is realigning education with the workforce, the basis of her speech Jan. 27 at the Par-A-Dice Hotel.

Quirk-Bailey told the audience she wanted to make a case for confluence, which means “a flowing, a coming together, a way we might be able to work together differently in the future to bring more success to our region and to our students and to our businesses.”

Quirk-Bailey shared a story to represent the challenges with youth in the community. She talked about a former ICC student named Matt Goodyear who, after high school, did not know what to do. He did not feel like he was college material; however, he attended ICC. He took courses he wasn’t really interested in and eventually left. He spent the next 10 years struggling financially. Someone then suggested that he go into manufacturing or mechatronics. Goodyear went back to ICC where he met a faculty member who saw potential in him. That faculty member told Goodyear that he should become an engineer. Goodyear became a straight A student and eventually made the cut to participate in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars program last year.

“Matt, I would argue, is one of the lucky ones. We have to ask ourselves, why did he not have an idea what career might be good for him? Why did he not know he had these sparks and talents? 

Why did he wander away and spend 10 years of his life without any direction before being reconnected?” Quirk-Bailey said. 

Economists call what happened to Goodyear as “the lost decade.”

“The issue with Matt is he shouldn’t be the exception, he should be the rule. We should get it done the first time,” Quirk-Bailey said.

Quirk-Bailey painted a drab picture of higher than state average unemployment in the Peoria area, a lack of skill sets to match available jobs and an increase in poverty.

One of the issues, Quirk-Bailey said, is a growing skills gap.

“At the same time we have more and more people who can’t find work, we have more and more companies who say I can’t find the people I need for the jobs I’m looking for,” Quirk-Bailey said.

The issue Quirk-Bailey is most concerned about is poverty. She said our region has both urban and rural poverty. 

“I’m more concerned about the rural poverty because they don’t have transportation systems and they usually don’t have internet access,” she said.

Quirk-Bailey said she is concerned that those who are born poor cannot change their situation.

“You are never more likely in the history of this country, if you’re born poor, to die poor, than ever before,” she said.

Times have changed, Quirk-Bailey said, from when she grew up. Her father was a high school drop-out and her mom stayed home with the five children. They always had food on the table and a working car.

“We had a wonderful middle class life. Unfortunately, young adults today cannot be high school drop-outs and cannot even just have a high school credential, and live that middle class dream anymore,” Quirk-Bailey said.

Today, Quirk-Bailey said the focus needs to be on labor market value. 

“Businesses have very specific needs and they’re looking for very specific skills, so we need to make sure we have more alignment with the skills that are needed and develop them in the people who need the opportunity,” Quirk-Bailey said.

Today, many jobs require a post-secondary credential, and 51 percent of adults in this region do not have one.

As a retirement wave hits likely in 2021, Quirk-Bailey said there will not be people qualified to fill jobs. 

“We do not have young Americans in this country trained in the areas that you’re looking for to take those jobs, either nationally or in this region and we’ve got to change that,” Quirk-Bailey said. “Our economic viability depends on matching those systems up.”

The model of attending college now, Quirk-Bailey said, needs to be “earn and learn,” because employers are looking for people with experience.

“We need more internships, we need more apprenticeships. We have to get students to understand what careers are out there, what the market’s driving, what the opportunities are and match those up,” Quirk-Bailey said.

How can these systems be synchronized?

Quirk-Bailey said there needs to be more guidance with students about career choices.

“We’ve got to help guide them to where the jobs are,” she said.

A strategic integration of workforce, education and business is the solution, Quirk-Bailey said, and conversations with students need to begin in junior high school.

“We need to systemically build in that career exposure as people go through education. We need to look at, in high school, far more dual credit to let students do their experimentation on careers in high school before they get to college,” Quirk-Bailey said.

Another component of realignment is working with businesses in the community and restructuring educational programs to fit the needs and passing that information on to students.

“You’ll learn about opportunities in the market you never knew of. Then you can make an informed decision about what opportunities are here in this district, here in this region. You match your skills and passions to the marketplace and everybody benefits,” Quirk-Bailey said.