As the economic asset that least heeds jurisdictional boundaries, human capital is indispensable to regional prosperity. Economic growth necessarily hinges on addressing common obstacles to residents’ long-term employability. Metropolitan Chicago is home to a well-educated and diverse workforce of nearly 5 million workers, whose knowledge and ingenuity are why many businesses choose to operate here. Yet our region must bridge the gaps between adults seeking to build a career and employers looking to build their workforce. Our education and workforce development investments must become more strategic and demand-driven in the face of uncertain future labor market shifts.
[GRAPHIC TO COME: A series of photos will show the diversity of the region’s residents and skilled occupations.]
Employment and demographic trends, demand for skills, and economic inequality are changing the demands placed on workers, as well as on adult education and training programs. Technological advancements are augmenting work in most occupations and at all skill levels, altering how workers use their time and conduct tasks. Residents increasingly need to earn additional post-secondary training to enter the workforce and continuously enhance their skills over time to stay in the workforce. Applicants increasingly need to demonstrate improved problem solving, literacy, numeracy, professional, and communication skills to be competitive in the job market. Workers increasingly need to interact adeptly with technology to anticipate, identify, and resolve problems.
These trends deepen concerns that technological advances, industry shifts, and other macro issues could exacerbate existing trends toward "job polarization." Since 1980, relative demand for labor has been concentrated in either low-skilled (e.g., personal services or food production) or high-skilled jobs (management and professional occupations), accompanied by an erosion of those in the middle. In particular, technology has helped to automate or streamline many repetitive tasks, while augmenting higher skilled jobs. The profile of a middle-income job -- traditionally in middle-skilled construction, production, or clerical roles -- has shifted toward occupations that require more training. Many workers in the Chicago region face the prospect of more training requirements for fewer middle-skill, middle-wage jobs in occupations dramatically different from those of the past. These economic realities have contributed to a decline in real median household income nationwide and a 4.9 percent decline in the Chicago metropolitan area during 1989-2016.
Recent studies also show that economic mobility is declining for many Americans: Children’s prospects of eventually earning more than their parents have fallen in America from above 90 percent for those born in 1940 to near 50 percent for those born in the early 1980s. In other words, fewer than half of millennials are likely to earn more than their parents. An analysis of economic data demonstrates that declines in economic mobility are more concentrated in the middle class, the industrial Midwest, and regions with higher existing levels of economic inequality, like Michigan and Illinois. The cumulative effect of income inequality also hinders the growth and resilience of urban U.S. counties in the face of future economic uncertainty. Between 2006-10, income inequality was one of the most effective ways of predicting a county’s risk of entering into recession. Existing disparities -- particularly by race and ethnicity -- further erode the region’s human capital when all residents cannot fully contribute to and benefit from the regional economy. Instead, regions can experience more robust and longer periods of growth if residents have equitable access to economic opportunity. Addressing these issues will require coordinated action on strategies across ON TO 2050.
The adult education and training systems provide essential knowledge and skills for workers to secure their own long-term employability as part of the region’s human capital. However, persistent administrative challenges and limited public funding can undermine the effectiveness of these systems. Emerging issues will require these systems to become more responsive and employers more engaged in addressing labor market needs on a regional scale. ON TO 2050 focuses on the critical role of high quality adult education and training in achieving the region’s economic goals, while acknowledging the vital importance of early childhood, primary, and secondary education.
In many ways, the Chicago region has been a national leader in reforming the public workforce system. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act requires workforce boards to conduct state-level and regional strategic planning, as well as to strengthen and expand partnerships with the private sector. Some of the Act’s key reforms were based on strategies already underway in our region. To be resilient in the face of a rapidly changing global economy, metropolitan Chicago must build on related local and state efforts to improve unified workforce planning, partnership development, and integrated data systems. While these strategies focus on improved coordination, the importance of robust public investment in workforce development cannot be overstated.
The following describes strategies and associated actions to implement this recommendation.