PEORIA HEIGHTS — More children are entering their school-age years socially and emotionally unprepared for effective learning, according to a study by the Illinois State Board of Education. It's a deficiency that, left unchanged, can follow children into adulthood and ultimately erode workforce skills and economic development, a group of local business leaders warned Wednesday.

"People in education know that when you get a child that is already far behind you find at a young age, there's already a lot of catch-up work to do," said Jeff Griffin, the executive director of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce. "So it is getting the resources to support those kids and those families that is essential to the future of our workforce, the future of our nation."

Griffin took part in a news conference Wednesday hosted by the Peoria Heights school district and sponsored by ReadyNation, an educational advocacy group of business executives that supports building a skilled workforce and preparing children to succeed in education, work and life. He was joined by Bill Fleming of the Pekin Chamber of Commerce, Amanda Atchley of the Canton chamber and Sean Noble, the Illinois state director of ReadyNation. 

They were reacting to the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey of data compiled in 2017 that revealed that a little less than half of kindergartners in Illinois could show they were prepared for school in social and emotional development and that only 44 percent of new kindergartners were considered ready in language and literacy, and only three out of 10 in their command of early math. The effect of the unpreparedness can be a lifelong struggle to find satisfying work.

"We have some great jobs available in the Peoria area — commercial drivers, welders, there are some great jobs — but we're having a hard time connecting people with the training they they need," Griffin said. "Sometimes that breaks down because of some social and emotional factors that they haven't developed as adults because they didn't have the early childhood intervention."

It's never too early to begin to develop a well-skilled workforce, the speakers emphasized.

"We know what works — high quality investment in young children's learning and growth," Atchley said. "Five hundred business executives said emotional development is a better predictor of employee success than either their IQ or previous work experience. Nine of 10 business leaders said they know that it is much easier to begin developing critical social emotional skills among our young children than it is to wait until they are older and closer to joining the workforce."

While the cost of daycare assistance and expanded birth-through-age-3 and pre-K programs can be expensive, the cost of staying put is more expensive and results in an unprepared workforce, Atchley said.

"Lack of accessible affordable child care for working families costs the U.S. economy about $57 billion every year, and that's just related to care for infants and toddlers," Atchley said. "(That number is) $2.4 billion in Illinois alone."

Noble said it appears state lawmakers are beginning to understand the importance of early learning programs.

"There is a strong new bipartisan push in Springfield to saying we do need to dedicate even more resources, hopefully at least $250 million, to these kinds of important purposes in the next capital plan that they are kind of piecing together right now, and we hope to help that happen," Noble said. "We need to continue to connect these vital dots between young children's well-being today and what that means for their jobs, careers and really the quality of our workforce in the future."

Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at shilyard@pjstar.com. Follow @scotthilyard on Twitter.