Education Attainment Division
Creating Career Pathways in Aurora
Chambers Mobilizing Towards a "Big Goal"
Situated 35 miles west of Chicago, the Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce serves as a catalyst for business development for the second largest community in the State of Illinois. In 2014, the Chamber received a Lumina Education Attainment Award to strengthen Pathways to Prosperity, a regional collective impact effort, which is developing career pathways in information technology, health sciences and advanced manufacturing. The Chamber and community partners are working to align existing programs with current and future business needs, and to ensure the initial pathways include opportunities for internships, dual credit and stackable credentials.
- Joseph Henning, President & CEO
Q: Can you provide some background on how your community began to focus on education attainment and workforce development?
A: For more than 25 years the Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce convened a business-education partnership group – which placed business-member volunteers in individual schools and even individual classrooms – but objectives were fragmented. The Pathways to Prosperity program was recognized within the state for a number of initiatives we were doing within the schools, but it just wasn’t enough considering what we were hearing from employers in Aurora about workforce needs and industry-specific skills gaps. We realized we needed to refocus our efforts and move into that new, collaborative arena.
This is my 10th year at the Chamber, and education and workforce development has been a continuous conversation over the past decade. Employers were demanding a more skilled workforce and kept asking what the Chamber could do. What our employers realized is that the skills gap issue is not something you can tackle on your own, and as much as we tried pushing the needle on our end, we too realized that we just couldn’t do it alone. We were fortunate that the last couple of years everyone got to the same point and came to the table. Six months ago we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the City of Aurora, the community college, and four local school districts. With that MOU, we now have an official partnership and each entity can now hold each other accountable.
Q: You were awarded ACCE’s Lumina Education Attainment Award to support your chamber’s involvement in the Pathways to Prosperity program. Can you tell me about the program’s origins and your chamber’s specific role in its implementation?
A: Around the same time our initial education-focused conversations started, the West Aurora School District was interested in Pathways to Prosperity, a nationwide project of 10 states created by Harvard University and Jobs for the Future. We joined them at the start to provide insight into the skills needs of area employers. We did an asset map, and through that process we identified three industries to address through the pathways program: IT, health sciences, and advanced manufacturing. We went from being a partner at the table, assisting in the development of the asset map, to taking on a leadership role. Today, we are coordinating some of the pathway deliverables and processes while also ensuring all partners are focused on the same mission.
Pathways to Prosperity focuses on creating pathways of career exploration, awareness and development for students in grades 9-14. The goal is to link high schools, community colleges and employers to increase the number of youth who complete high school and attain a postsecondary credential with labor market value. For example, if students are interested in the IT sector, we have designed a curriculum that exposes them to the different careers they can have within that sector, and the education path and certifications needed to get those careers. Once they graduate high school they may have earned dual credit with the local community college, industry certifications, and/or stackable credentials. The stackable credential piece is key and will allow students to build upon a certification received in school. We just had our very first student in the IT Pathway pass the Microsoft Certification Exam, which was our first win within that specific certification process. Another example of success is that students within our Health Sciences Pathway graduate prepped for CNA Certification. After graduation, they can build on that to earn a RN Certification. Essentially, we are designing these pathways and credentials in a way that teaches students to understand the value of adding education and certifications to their portfolio after graduation.
Q: Tell me about your chamber's overall education/workforce development portfolio.
A: Our whole portfolio of work is really about a collaborative effort. We have a long history of working with many community partners - including our educational institutions, our workforce investment board and Pathways to Prosperity partners to name a few.
In some cases, our work involves advocacy. For example, we recently used the legislative process for approval of a STEM Academy for grades 3-8. We had to get new legislation passed for the academy because there was nothing currently on the books in Springfield to support it. The STEM Academy is in partnership with our local university and is offered to three partner school districts in our area. The STEM Academy sits on the university campus, which is unique because students are exposed to the college-campus experience, and the Academy’s educators are able to get a graduate level education. Academy faculty come from the three partner schools, and while they are teaching at the STEM Academy, they are able to take courses in specific subject areas. Once they have completed their teaching assignment, they go back to their home school district and become leaders in schools in helping develop curriculum and professional development supports for faculty. It is a very unique program, and there are a number of businesses involved in creating that STEM curriculum.
We also partner with our local Workforce Investment Board to implement an advanced manufacturing internship program. We worked with a number of our manufacturers to provide hands-on experience and class time to students so they get a better understanding of what manufacturing is – including everything from global manufacturing facilities to small, local shops. Part of that classroom component requires students to complete OSHA training and receive their OSHA certification through that process. This gives them one certification to add to their portfolio, which is the whole idea behind all of this. We are encouraging stackable credentials and certifications for students to build upon.
Q: How are your education and workforce development initiatives funded?
A: We are fortunate to be a recipient of ACCE’s Lumina Education Attainment Award, which has significantly helped us support our partnerships and corresponding efforts. Currently, the entities sitting at the leadership table are contributing to the success of our work. The City of Aurora has provided funding towards our education attainment programs. The school districts are providing in-kind resources, such as senior leadership staff time and expertise and professional development opportunities for their educators.
We also currently have support from employers with curriculum development and internships, but we’re taking steps be able to go to them for financial support by getting the pieces together to show the successes of our programs.
Q: This is obviously a large investment in terms of resources and staff capacity. How do you make it work from an organizational standpoint?
A: In terms of capacity, we are very limited in our staff resources, with two full-time and two part-time staff members. The two part-time staff members are very specific to operations, and the two full-time staff include a membership director and myself. So it is a bit of a juggle. This is a passion of mine, continuing education and workforce development, so it’s really one of those responsibilities that I have happily added. We are also fortunate to have a consultant who is helping us with some of the research agenda and follow-up from meetings, etc. It is a huge time commitment, but in my opinion, it will pay off in the future. Sometimes, work is even accomplished through our volunteers. We’ve got a great set of business leaders who are really involved in either developing curriculum or providing internships. Once we start seeing more outcomes, we can explore a couple different options, including adding a workforce development position to the team here, or it might be appropriate to create a foundation and house that staff within it.
Q: What best practices and/or lessons learned can you share with other chamber professionals working on education reform?
A: We hear it a lot, but success doesn’t happen overnight. I hate to be cliché driven, but once you fall, you’ve got to get back up. This has been something I have been working toward for 10 years now, and sometimes, you just have to have everything in alignment to be successful.
We are fortunate to have a great collaborative relationship with the city, the community college and our local school districts. You have got to rely on that collaborative piece, especially when you are a chamber with limited staff capacity. There is nothing that we do that is 100% driven by the chamber, whether its programs, events, or advocacy.
The key strength that a chamber brings is that we are the conduit for the business community and education. Sometimes you have to build that trust. Traditionally, business and education have not been the best of partners – there are often philosophical differences– and I think at times you just have to listen to what the needs are from both sides of the table.
Also, celebrate the small steps. Like I said before, we had one student pass the Microsoft Certification Exam – which is a small step for us, but we are very excited. Another small win is that we will begin next school year with three pathways in each of our seven participating high schools. Based on registrations for that academic year, we have realized a 25 percent increase in enrollments in Pathways-specific courses. Long-term goals such as moving that graduation needle may take 12 years to see a significant change, and nobody is going to wait around that long! Celebrate those small steps because that is how you win the race.