A four-year pilot initiative in Quincy hopes to develop a pipeline of skilled workers to fill technical jobs at local businesses.
The "Quincy Promise" program allows high school graduates to attend John Wood Community College and "enter into any of their associate applied science or certificate programs and get their tuition paid for," according to Mayor Kyle Moore.
Privately funded grants will cover tuition after federal and state financial aid has been applied, essentially making the selected students' studies tuition free. They are only available for students who choose to pursue certain career, health care and technical degrees, many of which only require two years of study.
"These are only for applied science programs, so very specific training that our industries need, so hopefully in two years there's an immediate injection of skilled workers in Quincy's workforce," Moore said. "The message is: you can be a high school senior right now in the city of Quincy and in two years, obtain a degree, find employment and start a family and have no college debt. That’s really the American dream and what we want in Quincy."
On its website, John Wood Community College estimates more than 1,000 professional positions will open in the Quincy area for highly skilled workers in the next four years, with salaries up to $50,000 a year. Moore said the college has worked with local business leaders to align its courses with the skill-set companies need from employees.
By focusing on areas like study like chemistry, biology, engineering, Moore said students will be able to fill the skills gap many local employers say exists in high-demand technical fields like manufacturing, healthcare and agriculture.
That's the case at Titan International, which makes tires and other products for farm equipment.
"There’s a lot of employers in the area who know that the technical skills of the workforce are not what they should be today, not what we’re going to need five to ten years from now...as far as electricians, people in transport where you work through a supply chain, lab technicians and other types of machinists," said Kim Boccardi, director of marketing. "A lot of what we do is automated. These are multi-million dollar machines; they need to know how to operate and fix them."
Titan is just one of the companies pledging financial support to the program, as is Phibro Animal Health. President Dean Warras said his agricultural company has more than doubled in size in the last five years and so will the need for skilled employees. He said biology, chemistry and engineering skills are necessary to work in their labs, on nutritional projects, and in their manufacturing plants, but the company also needs those with a background in business for marketing and finance positions.
Knowing that there will be jobs waiting for them after graduation at local companies will keep more students in the Quincy area, Warras said.
"Our interest is to keep...those adults and their eventual families and the money they earn in Quincy and the local community," he said. "Why does the homegrown approach make sense? It's obvious: a person from Quincy, educated here in Quincy, working here in Quincy - especially if we're talking about a head of household job of which we have many to offer - I think you're more likely to hold on to that person and keep them for a career. A person you transfer in for a job is just as likely to transfer out for another job."
But the program also offers local employers like Warras a unique opportunity to develop a relationship with young people to help foster the kinds of workers the companies need.
"So when they are ready to graduate we have a pipeline already developed," Warras said. "That labor pool that we can engage with very early on in their education careers, and then keep track, mentor them, watch them, develop the relationship and hopefully tap them for a job later on, is huge for us. We’ve never had anything like that in this community and now we do."
Similarly, John Wood Community College will work with students in the program through its career services program, where students will have to meet with a career counselor. The school will also help connect students with employers during job fairs and other events, according to a press release on the program.
Moore estimates $250,000 has been raised by the coalition behind the program, which includes area businesses, local high schools and the Great River Economic Development Foundation. He said the program is based on a similar initiative in Peoria, Ill., that saw success; it was fine-tuned for Quincy's needs, he said.
In addition to the skills gap, Moore said the program was also tweaked to address another issue facing the community: a lack of post-secondary education in the area. Moore said about 51 percent of Quincy's workforce has a high school degree or less.
He said a sign the program is successful will be if it raises the city's overall educational attainment.
"When we're recruiting employers into the city of Quincy we want to let them know we have the most educated workforce that you could find in the Midwest," he said.
Titan's Boccardi said it will help remove a big barrier to post-secondary education for many students.
"What keeps some of these students from fulfilling the dream of having a degree is just the cost, and so with this initiative...these students that are coming out of Quincy high schools have the opportunity to get into programs at John Wood and come out without any college debt out of those programs," she said. "These are our employees of tomorrow and we want to be able to support them."
Fifty students will be accepted into the "Quincy Promise" program in the first year, Moore said. The following years will likely take 100 students.
Applications open September 15 and close February 1, and can be found at JWCC's website.