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Higher demand for high-tech skills

Students HossProgram West AurorHigh School including seniors Wendy Ocampo center left Denise Lynne Bonifacio center right practice for their state

Students in the Hossa Program at West Aurora High School including seniors Wendy Ocampo, center left, and Denise Lynne Bonifacio, center right practice for their state tests during a study hall on Thursday, January 23, 2013. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 26, 2013 6:27AM

Illinois’ 8.7 percent unemployment rate is frustrating for job-seekers — and it’s frustrating for employers, too.

“The general problem is that technological skills, talent and resources are not available in our marketplace,” said Scott Voris, past president of the Aurora Area Chamber of Commerce.

Voris is the owner of Aurora-based Kelmscott Communications, which provides business marketing services from creative concepts to data management to printing signs to developing websites.

“... The tech positions are very challenging for us to fill,” he said.

On Friday, Harvard University researchers, working with the Aurora business and education communities and the city of Aurora, will present their proposals on bridging this employee skill-employer need gap.

Representatives from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Jobs for the Future will present the results of months of research into the Fox Valley — its in-demand career fields, how students are currently preparing for the world of work, and how to address the gap that exists between high school graduates and high-tech careers.

While Kelmscott, a company of roughly 75 employees, might have an open position for several weeks or months, larger manufacturers like Caterpillar are constantly searching for employees with specific mechanical and technical skills.

“When you talk about Cat or several other manufacturers, they literally have dozens or hundreds of open positions without local talent to be able to fill them,” Voris noted.

Cabot Microelectronics, for one, conducts searches around the globe for scientists to develop the next big chip that will go into a Samsung phone or an iPad. There simply aren’t many workers in the Fox Valley with Ph.D’s in chemistry or materials science.

“We realize that here in the U.S., for whatever reason, students studying science, technology and math, it’s not as sexy as it once was,” said Catherine Conroy, global corporate marketing manager for Cabot, which is based on Aurora’s far East Side.

“My goodness, we need to get back to being a nation where those types of fields are revered and seen as being important.”

Manufacturing, in particular, is a puzzle. For decades, high school graduates could walk onto a factory floor with little or no training and slowly work their way up into secure, well-paid, skilled jobs that lasted a career.

But today, the outlook is different. Unemployment rates for 18- and 19-year-olds sit at 22.6 percent across the country, in part because manufacturers need fewer unskilled laborers but are in desperate need of well-educated employees who can operate complex machinery.

Pathways to Prosperity

Harvard’s project in Aurora is called Pathways to Prosperity, and it began in September, when Harvard researchers arrived here to meet with leaders in education and business to help define Aurora’s needs — both for its students and its business community.

The team found three job sectors — health care, high-tech manufacturing and information technology — with growing demand in the Fox Valley, but few pathways for young people to get there.

What’s more, many of the jobs in these fields require just certifications or two-year degrees, making them more accessible to young people who are not headed to a traditional college.

Friday’s meeting is expected to be just the start of long-term strategic changes to high school curriculum in Aurora, to school-business partnerships designed to introduce students to different fields, and to investments in programs and infrastructure across the city for young people.

A citywide technology learning center is on the wish list. So, too, are high-level technology classes — think less keyboarding and more computer coding and programing — for high school students.

A model for the country

Plenty of eyes are watching Aurora’s Pathways to Prosperity, as Harvard researchers are hoping their program coordinating business and education will become a model for communities across the country. Springfield is watching, too — its Illinois Pathways program, an initiative supporting learners in exploring their academic and career interests in science, technology, engineering and math fields, has partnered with the Harvard initiative, which is also funded by the Dunham Fund.

But already, the Pathways program has models in the community.

For example, West Aurora High School, for the past 15 years, has offered its students a Health Occupations Academy, a team-taught curriculum within West High that trains sophomores, juniors and seniors for careers in health care.

On Thursday, students practiced CPR skills and taking blood pressure measurements, the kinds of things they’ll be asked to do on a state certification exam. Seniors also get the chance to enroll in dual-credit courses in phlebotomy and emergency medical technician training at Waubonsee Community College.

About 50 students a year graduate from the program certified for jobs as nursing assistants, and most eventually earn associates or bachelor’s degrees in nursing, or go on to become doctors, therapists, even veterinarians.

April Sonnefeldt, health occupations teacher, said what she’d like to see out of a citywide program like Pathways are stronger relationships between her department and health care organizations in the city.

“I would love to have the partnership to allow my students to go to the places where they would be working,” she said. “It’s difficult right now, with colleges taking up a lot of internship opportunities, to get my students out there to see what goes on in the workplace, in particular for job shadowing, internships and volunteering.”

She said she’s also hopeful that more interest in career readiness programs like hers will allow the Health Academy — which is unique in Aurora — to expand.

“I would love to expand to more students in the high school,” Sonnefeldt said. “One hundred fifty kids in a school of 3,600, it’s not a lot.”

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