By ALAN J. ORTBALS
Four years ago, a collaborative effort called the Manufacture Your Future/Craft Your Future campaign was launched and coordinated by the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois along with its regional strategic partners, such as Southern Illinois Builders Association, designed to connect employers with students, teachers, parents and guidance counselors and other influencers to promote STEM education.
Over the first two years, the group spoke to more than 12,000 people at schools and other events throughout Southwestern Illinois. Over the past several years, that number doubled as the council built its speaker’s bureau to 60 participants; expanded its focus beyond strictly STEM (to STEAM, adding the arts); and adopted a new campaign name: Building Workforce 2030 to accommodate the business needs and careers in demand in Southwestern Illinois.
“When we launched this campaign, we had no idea there was going to be this much demand for our educational systems to engage with our business community,” said Leadership Council executive director and CEO Dr. Ronda Sauget. “Once we started going out to the schools, it just exploded. All of the superintendents and teachers started talking to each other and we just had a phenomenal response by people wanting to come out and work with us. We discovered that there was a huge need.”
But the need wasn’t just on the education side, said Sauget. As the campaign grew, more and more employers wanted to get involved.
“By expanding our focus and being more inclusive, it helped us provide students and school districts a lot more diversity and variety within the speakers and activities that we offer. Basically, the students wanted to hear from businesses, military, and skilled trade professionals who really do the actual work.”
At first, the program was aimed at the high schools but, Sauget said, officials quickly realized they needed to drop down to the middle school and even the elementary school level. March 1 is Read Across America Day and members of the council’s speaker’s bureau will be out at Bluffview Elementary in Dupo reading to students. This year, she said, the council is partnering with Union Pacific Railroad on the event to launch a new book about rail safety. Each child will receive a conductor’s hat and train whistle, younger children will receive books to take home, and all the books read will have a copy donated to the schools’ library. Books will be donated to each teacher’s classroom for future students to enjoy years into the future.
Sauget said the council tries to mold the program to a school’s needs and interests. The council continues to assist with career conferences, which typically have brought in more than 40 speakers from different career fields.
“Some wanted to hear about advanced manufacturing, building construction trades, aircraft pilots, cyber security; while some students wanted to hear about investments, nursing, banking, and so,” she said. “We try to provide a wide variety, so a student can learn about many careers from the industry speakers and say, wow, that’s something cool. I want to do that.”
Some of the members of the speaker’s bureau bring students to their places of business for tours and up-close looks at the various occupations involved. Kathy Federico, for example, took a group to her Federico Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealership in Wood River to see the service department at work servicing and repairing cars. Gulfstream Aerospace gives tours of its maintenance and repair operations in Cahokia. And, students travel to Scott Air Force Base to learn about STEAM careers ranging from airplane pilot to cybersecurity.
“One of the main things that the generals at Scott Air Force Base told me early on when I started working with them,” Sauget said, “is if you want to maintain and grow Scott Air Force Base, we need to build the workforce and future talent pipeline we need in cybersecurity and these other career fields. The USAF is approximately 2000 pilots short and need students in the field of aviation maintenance. The military needs great pilots, cyberwarriors, avionics and on down the line.”
According to Sauget, Building Workforce 2030 is not only important to building up existing companies but also in attracting new ones. Workforce, she says, has become key to economic development and companies will go to where they can find the skilled and technical workforce to fill their needs. These are jobs with sustainable incomes that build strong families, communities, and our economic future.
“For us this is such a critical element in building our economy from the military to manufacturing to the crafts, all the way across the board,” Sauget said. “When we first started, the idea was to go out and build awareness in some of the schools but I don’t think we had any idea when we first started going to our high schools that it would have expanded like this.”
There are tremendous numbers of positions available in Southwestern Illinois in STEM and related career fields, Sauget added.
“We want students and parents to be aware of these extremely viable careers that help support local companies, attract new ones and grow our economy,” she said.
By ALAN J. ORTBALS