Photo: Intersect Illinois / Twitter.

By Andria Winters, President of Intersect Illinois

“Friends of the Forge” is a guest blog series that aims to both address issues and promote great ideas around the Chicago education system by channeling the expertise of thought leaders within the community.

Since the early 2000s, the important relationship between higher education and the workforce has come to the forefront when discussing economic growth. At Intersect Illinois, we hear about the need for a prepared workforce almost daily during our outreach on behalf of the state to promote the benefits of working in and with the state of Illinois.

The available talent pool is one of the main factors when it comes to location decisions, and in today’s world of strong global competition, a highly productive, engaged, and educated workforce is critical to make the difference.

Andria Winters.

Andria Winters.

A major component of Intersect Illinois’ economic development strategy, developed in coordination with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO), centers around connecting employers with the various resources provided by our superior education institutions. Fortunately, Illinois has such opportunities in droves. The state has 192 higher education institutions statewide, with many of the top institutions in the country, and the world, located in the Chicago area.

But what continues to set this state apart from the others are three important factors: our talent pipeline, our collaborative training opportunities, and our unique innovation assets.

The talent pipeline in the state exceeds expectations:

  • Illinois graduates 103,504 Business / MBA students per year and has two of the Top 10 MBA programs in the world: University of Chicago and Northwestern
  • Illinois graduates 37,012 Engineering students per year and has three of the Top 10 undergraduate engineering schools within a 2-4 hour drive: University of Illinois, Purdue, and Michigan 
  • Illinois graduates 28,758 IT / Computer students per year, with the University of Illinois as one of the nation’s Top 10 undergraduate computer science programs in the U.S 
  • Illinois graduates 8,772 Legal students per year and has 2 of the Top 10 Law Schools
    in the U.S. for Career Prospects: University of Chicago & Northwestern

Recently, Illinois competed with several other states and cities, including Austin, for a new large Glassdoor office. Due to the strength of Illinois’ talent pipeline that will allow them to grow at the pace they need, Illinois was successful in its bid for the new office location, which will create over 200 jobs.

Illinois students can learn and thrive in institutions that support them to become the best and brightest, while also having the opportunity to get hands-on work experience. We work directly to marry corporations and education institutions to create environments that challenge and engage students directly.

These kinds of specialized top-tier programs include Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design’s award-winning and largest full-time, graduate-only design program; and Southern Illinois University’s Department of Automotive Technology, one of the few Automotive Technology Baccalaureate Degree universities supplying the industry. This allows companies to plug directly into a talent pool able and desirous to a part of their fields.

Additional opportunities for collaboration between community colleges and companies to implement training programs specially tailored to bolster employee skills are championed by DCEO. For example, the Institute for Workforce Education at St. Augustine College trained 300+ incumbent workers who were at risk of layoffs without the necessary skills updates. The Calumet Area Industrial Commission (CAIC) received a grant to partner with Joliet Junior College to provide the classroom training portion of an Apprenticeship Program to attain a CDL credential, and then begin on-the-job training at JB Hunt.  This project is part of an overall effort to satisfy employers’ demand for well-prepared workers ready to perform well in high-demand occupations.

Intersect Illinois also works to highlight and make connections to the world-class innovation assets and resources our institutions can offer businesses. These hubs, housed within renowned educational facilities, allow students and researchers to make breakthroughs while serving the public and private sectors.  Examples include the Institute For Food Safety And Health, housed at Corn Products International‘s former HQ campus and staffed by Illinois Institute of Technology Department of Food Science and Nutrition graduate and professional students, which is one of the country’s premier Food Safety Modernization Act training programs; the Argonne National Lab, a non-profit research laboratory operated by the University of Chicago for the Department of Energy; and the University of Illinois’ National Center For Supercomputing Applications, a hub of transdisciplinary research and digital scholarship that helps companies address computing and data challenges while providing hands-on training for undergraduate and graduate students and post-docs.

Additionally, there are over 200 spaces available to innovators across Illinois, like the University of Chicago’s Polsky Exchange, the Garage at Northwestern University and Research Park at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Over the last 5 years, 611 startups were created through university technology licensing, entrepreneurship programs, and other university-financed initiatives, with 80% still active (or were acquired). These university-based incubators and innovation hubs allow corporations to employ student interns year round as a low-cost workforce with high potential for full-time recruitment after graduation; recruit top talent from campus; scout early technology and research trends and engage with startups; and engage in sponsored research and other university partnerships.

Chicago, and Illinois on a whole, has the talent pipeline and institutions in place to support innovation and economic development. By helping to bring these important facts and capabilities to the forefront, Intersect Illinois is working to continue Illinois’s legacy of success.

Andria Winters is co-founder of Intersect Illinois, and serves as President. Governor Bruce Rauner appointed Andria Winters as Assistant Director of the Illinois Department of Commerce in February 2015. As Assistant Director, Andria was responsible for all operations and strategy for the agency and the State Offices of Business Development; Entrepreneurship, Innovation & Technology; Film; Regional Economic Development; Tourism; and Trade & Investment.