Educators and employers looking to match skills training and students came together Monday at Illinois Central College to refine their efforts.

The school played host to a statewide gathering on work-based learning. It’s an area where local educators are already putting renewed energy.

“We often cite the statistic that to have a robust, sustainable economy you need 60 percent of your populace to have a credential beyond high school of some sort. Peoria area is at 40 percent,” said Andrew Kerr, ICC’s associate vice president of workforce development. “We feel it’s our mission as the local community college to bridge that gap, and to make that additional 20 percent more of a reality.”

Though such experiential learning has been a part of ICC’s curriculum since its inception, the school has refined some of its offerings in recent years, Kerr said.

That includes establishing “earn-and-learn” programs to help people who need to further their educations while also supporting themselves and, often, their families. Such initiatives, including apprenticeships, “will provide a family-sustaining wage, tuition, fees, and pays them for ‘seat time’ while they’re in the classes and also the workforce-based experience,” Kerr said.

Participating companies get degree-holding employees who are trained in equipment specific to the business, and offer guaranteed minimum salaries.

ICC has launched one program for industrial maintenance, and will take a second cohort of students through the program beginning in January — the same time the school takes another group through the cybersecurity and software security apprenticeship. In the fall, a CNC machining apprenticeship will begin.

Meanwhile, the school is also revising its welding program to what Kerr calls “a competency-based system that matches industry standards” and establishing a welding testing center. That way graduates will be able to document specific skills when applying for positions.

And it’s seeking ways to establish sponsored programs. One area being considered is for truck drivers, where a shortage of employees exists.

Kerr notes that the $5,000 required to get at commercial driver’s license may be “out of the reach of a lot of people.” 

Essentially a participating company or companies would pay students’ way for securing their CDL, while students would agree to work for that company at a guaranteed wage for a certain number of years.

Gov. Bruce Rauner spoke to attendees at the close of the full day of workshops and breakout sessions, praising the “pockets of outstanding work” going on throughout the state and the event’s purpose of helping people collaborate and find ideas that are working elsewhere that they can implement at their home institutions. 

Noting that “many young people learn best by actually doing,” Rauner said firms and companies he’s worked at have made a practice of offering internships and work experiences to help identify — and later recruit — top talent.

“That real-world experience? Nothing more powerful,” he said.