"The Future of Economic Opportunity," held at the Homewood-Flossmoor Auditorium in Homewood on Wednesday, July 19, was the fourth of five Alternative Futures forums hosted by Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) this summer.

More than 100 people gathered for a conversation about how to ensure future economic success for everyone in the Chicago region.  The discussion was moderated by Alden Loury, a director at the Metropolitan Planning Council, and panelists included Lazaro Lopez, chairman of the Illinois Community College Board; Marie Truzpek Lynch, the founding president and CEO of Skills for Chicagoland's Future; and Bhash Mazumder, senior economist and research advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

The forum series is part of the five-month Alternative Futures public engagement campaign as CMAP develops the region's next comprehensive plan, ON TO 2050.  A draft preview report on the plan is available for public comment through August 3.  Read more about the Transformed Economy future, examine related strategies, and provide feedback about how our region can prepare to thrive in 2050.

In his opening remarks, CMAP executive director Joe Szabo emphasized that right now is a pivotal moment for determining the future success of the region's economy and its residents' prosperity.

"Automation and artificial intelligence, just to name two, are transforming regional employment, consumption, and global competitiveness.  Preparing for this shift requires recognizing both the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, particularly in areas such as workforce development and education," Szabo said.

An unequal playing field 

The event also served as the release of a new ON TO 2050 strategy paper on inclusive growth, a topic panelists discussed from multiple angles throughout the evening.

"There was a lot of celebration because the employment rate was below five percent," Lynch said.  "But it is not equally distributed across the region."

Lynch noted that zip codes should not be determinants of employment status, and that not everyone has access to connections that can help increase the likelihood of finding employment.

"Eighty-five percent of jobs are filled by networking with someone you know," Lynch said.  This fact makes it incredibly difficult for a person without connections to find a job, even if this person has the required skills and training."

One sign of a growing gap in economic opportunity is shrinking intergenerational mobility.  Mazumder explained that people across the region and the nation as a whole have a much lower shot today at meeting or exceeding their parents' income level.  As 2050 approaches, growing inequity will only exacerbate this gap, according to Mazumder.

"Those of us at the upper end of the income distribution basically have the wherewithal to confer advantages to our kids, and one of the ways is by segregating ourselves," Mazumder said.  He explained that this can be done in a number of ways, including parents' helping their children land internships, among other advantages.

Changing the high school experience

In order to ensure a more ready workforce, panelists said there is a need to increase training in the region's high schools.

"Every high school ought to have career preparation, not for a career after college, but for those who don't make it to college or aren't interested in college," Lynch said.  She emphasized that students should leave high school able to get a job.

Lopez agreed that the high school experience needs to be reimagined.  One of the ways he proposed doing so is by bringing relevancy back to schools and helping students gain a sense of what they want to do in their careers.  Lopez said that high schools should teach students soft skills such as organization and preparedness, and provide them with programs to let them know what kinds of jobs they might be qualified to pursue.

"Today, there is not really a distinction between academics and career-readiness," Lopez said.

Mazumder, on the other hand, pointed out that many employers are and will continue to seek a highly educated labor force.  He noted that in the future, many more jobs will require secondary education.

"There are some people who are not college ready, and I think in the future that just can't be the case.  We need to strive for everyone to be college ready even if they don't end up completing a four-year college degree," Mazumder said.

The importance of mentorship

One of the key factors to ensuring that youth from all communities today find employment and economic stability is the presence of mentors.

Lopez spoke from personal experience, saying he did not meet a Latino person with a doctorate degree until he was 30 years old.  He warned that students from minority groups and low-income communities need "a way to see beyond their particular neighborhood."

Lynch agreed, emphasizing that high schools and jobs programs alike should provide mentors.  "One piece that really makes a difference across the spectrum is a caring adult," Lynch said.

More on this Alternative Future

To learn more about Transformed Economy, visit http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/onto2050/futures/economy, where you can take a survey about how the region should adapt to ensure prosperity in 2050.  If you missed the forum, listen to it here.

Next: Constrained Resources

Register for the final Alternative Futures Forum Series Event, "Doing More with Less in 2050," at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, August 15, 2017, at by the Libertyville Civic Center (135 W. Church St., Libertyville).  The event is co-sponsored by the McHenry County Council of Governments and Northwest Municipal Conference.