By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
A Madison County government organization is poised to play a vital role in helping staff a giant Jersey County development when the state officially reorganizes its regional workforce boundaries later this year.
Come July 1, Calhoun and Jersey counties will be added to Workforce Area 22 represented by Madison County Employment and Training. The timing is coincidental but will come just as developers move forward with plans to build the Mid-American International Gateway Business Park, a half-billion-dollar rail hub envisioned in Jersey County.
The workforce boundary changes began when the U.S. Department of Labor began monitoring its 10 economic development regions in Illinois and discovered that the one involving Southwestern Illinois counties did not conform to legislation set up for local Workforce Innovation Areas. Essentially, the counties must be the same in each grouping.
“The legislation says you cannot have a split between economic development regions and the local Workforce Areas,” said Tony Fuhrmann, director of Madison County Employment and Training. “So, the Department of Labor said Jersey and Calhoun counties need to move with us.”
The southwestern Illinois Workforce Area 22 also takes in Bond County. Jersey and Calhoun are presently part of Area 21 based in Carlinville.
The primary responsibilities of the department are to administer employment and training programs under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and other state and federal funding sources. Employment and Training receives its funding from the U.S. Department of Labor, which distributes grant monies to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development and then to 22 local workforce areas throughout the state.
Everyone involved believes the shuffle of counties will be beneficial, particularly as Jersey County picks up its efforts to support the new rail hub, planned in the southern part of Jerseyville.
Originally, the addition of Jersey and Calhoun was not expected to take place so quickly.
“The original plan was the counties would move by July of 2020,” Fuhrmann said. But (the feds) gave local counties the option to file a waiver. Jersey and Calhoun counties made the request to move. They also said they didn’t want to wait until 2020; they wanted to do it in 2019. So, we’re fast-tracking it.”
In the past month, the four counties involved have been working on the necessary intergovernmental agreements, he said.
Meetings were slated late in February to sign all the agreements, and Fuhrmann said he didn’t anticipate any snags since the shift will be beneficial to the entire region.
There is an office in Jerseyville with two people, but no office or staffing in Calhoun, which is much smaller, population wise. Fuhrmann said part of the agreement was to keep Jersey open, and he said there was “no way” he would close it, given what’s directly ahead.
“There is a half-billion-dollar project coming up there. If anything, we may be increasing staff up there,” he said.
Mid-American International Gateway Business Park is to be located along the Kansas City Southern Rail on 1,400 acres south of Crystal Lake Road in Jersey. The goal is to build a rail and truck shipping hub that would help move cargo between Mexico and Jerseyville and points all around the Midwest.
Developer of the park is Stonemont Financial Group, of Atlanta, Ga. The company CEO and Managing Principal Zach Markwell said recently that the land due diligence phase is complete, and the project is moving forward in design.
The Workforce Area that now includes Madison/Bond operates with a $2.3 million budget, and Furhmann said his office would take in the Jersey/Calhoun budget once the changes occur.
“The big advantage I see is on business services, actually reaching out to the businesses of Jersey and Calhoun counties,” he said.
Two key services are on-the-job training program where the department pays up to 50 percent of a new employee’s wages for up to six months; and incumbent worker training where the department goes into a company and trains current workforce to upgrade to a new skill or new position or on new equipment.
“We will pay for that training,” Fuhrmann said. “Something we’ve seen lately, because of the low unemployment rate, is leadership training for companies that have moved people up to frontline supervisors and need to have training in supervisor skills. We’ve helped a couple companies with that.”
The big push going on nationally and across the state is increasing the number of apprenticeships.
“We’re looking to increase the number by 25 percent. When people think apprenticeships, they think trades, but we’re talking full gamut, through all industries and occupations. Those programs are available through the Department of Labor. It’s a big push,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges is getting a handle on the availability of the workforce. Furhmann was to meet on that topic late in February with Sherry Albrecht, the director of Jerseyville Economic Development Council Inc., as well as representatives from Lewis and Clark Community College.
“We’re moving forward. We want to be on the same page. Lewis and Clark has been doing some preliminary work on workforce information for this development,” Fuhrmann said. “We’re excited about the possibility of being included in that.”
He sees a possibility of developing some programs in the high schools for careers that will become available in Jerseyville in the next couple of years.
Some 1,000 workers have been estimated as needed in Jersey County in the longer term, much of it dependent on the nature of the businesses drawn to the project,
Locals are counting on the track record of the developer, which has put together many projects including a notable one in Texas.
The idea in Jersey would be to lure manufacturers who could help fill or offload rail cars as they pass through Jerseyville, making the most of the KCS trains that pass through on the north-south route.
Other workforce news
Filling jobs in general is a growing concern in Southwestern Illinois as hiring continues to be strong. Fuhrmann cites the plans to build the new Gateway TradePort in Pontoon Beach, announced this past month.
“A year ago, when that began to develop, we heard 4,000 jobs there. Then you have (nearby Gateway Commerce Center) and 6,000 or 7,000 jobs there. Then, another 1,000 in Jerseyville, all with similar industries and skillsets. I don’t think it will be 10 years” (for the manpower shortages to be felt),” Fuhrmann said.
NorthPoint Development says Gateway TradePort would be a new 600-acre, seven million-square-foot institutional industrial park situated along Interstates 270 and 255 in Pontoon Beach.
Gateway TradePort will begin taking shape this month when crews break ground on the park’s lead building, Gateway TradePort 1, a 540,000-square-foot building set to deliver in the early fourth quarter of this year.
A schematic released by NorthPoint shows plans for a potential 10 buildings south of Interstate 270 between Illinois Route 111 and Interstate 255.
By comparison, Gateway Commerce Center in Pontoon Beach and Edwardsville has a total of 22 completed or under-construction buildings. Nearby Lakeview Commerce Center in Edwardsville has another seven, according to city figures.
Fuhrmann said his office annually assists approximately 4,000 individuals. He said the number is growing as more people become aware of the services available through his department and their partner agencies.
“Our charge is to help provide a skilled, trained and ready workforce,” he said. “There are many services offered by our office that people don’t know about.”
Fuhrmann said the funds available through the department are for individuals who have lost their job, are transitioning from the military, or who meet certain low-income guidelines. However, many services offered are available to all residents of Madison and Bond counties, designed to assist either business or job seekers. These services include job listings, employment training, skills assessment, career counseling, job search assistance, vocational training, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, recruitment assistance, youth employment and training, job and career fairs, referral services and many other types of employer/employee assistance.
“If someone needs help with updating their resume, we can assist with it,” Fuhrmann said.