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Chicago Defender-Where the Jobs Are: Collaboration Equals Connectivity

By Andrea L. Zopp

We’ve all seen the headlines about the double-digit unemployment that persists in the African American community, and the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to succeed at all types of careers. But when you look at the available jobs in metropolitan Chicago – and the fact that many positions have gone unfilled – the unemployment outlook doesn’t add up. And worse, the future sustainably of the African American workforce does not look good.

Current jobless numbers in our community force us to ask tough questions like: If employers are hiring, why are there so many open positions? And why are African Americans still unable to access these jobs? Clearly there is a disconnect that points to a skills gap in the African American workforce but also to opportunity gaps.

If these skills and job opportunity deficits are not addressed in strategic and thoughtful ways, the African American workforce will eventually become obsolete. And in a city where we make up more than 30 percent of the population, a weakened Black workforce will undoubtedly lead to the crippling of our city’s economy. We must turn this trend around.

At the Chicago Urban League, we believe that preparing people for existing and future jobs requires that community stakeholders in the public, private and not-profit sector tap into solutions that give African Americans the skills needed for jobs in STEM and STEM-related fields. But we must take it a step further. Once we prepare individuals for the jobs we must work relentlessly to connect them to job opportunities.  We must be fearless in this effort to uplift and empower the African American workforce.

On Wednesday April 30, the Chicago Urban League will convene leaders at our annual summit and luncheon. Utilizing the theme, Fearless Collaboration: Where Preparation Meets Opportunity, we will discuss solutions to the crisis of the African American skills gap, acknowledge the collaborative efforts that are making an impact, and encourage support for more innovative efforts that will lead to more African Americans landing  good-paying jobs with a lifetime of growth potential.

We have our work cut out for us but there is a pathway to success.

First, we must close the education gap that inhibits skills training. In the final quarter of 2013 in Cook County, more the 77 percent of the150,000 job openings at the top 20 employers were in skills-driven sectors, according to a report by the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership. They included jobs in IT, healthcare, transportation, manufacturing and sales, industries in which African Americans historically have been underrepresented but, if trained, could surely thrive.

In Chicago, we know what success looks like. We have seen powerful collaborations such as the Skills for Chicagoland’s Future program, which partners with employers to implement train-to-hire and direct hire initiatives. Since its launch in 2012, more than 600 have been hired. And since it began in 2011, the City Colleges of Chicago’s College to Careers initiative, that exposes students to career opportunities in fast growing jobs in partnership with industry leaders, has placed more than 1,000 in jobs or internships.

We will discuss these examples and explore others on April 30.

Joining our conversation on innovative ways to connect preparation to opportunity will be keynote speaker Ilene S. Gordon, Chairman, President and CEO of Ingredion Incorporated, a Westchester-based FORTUNE 500 company. Gordon is true business leader who knows first-hand the greatness that can occur when one is armed with the necessary skills and given the chance to demonstrate their value to an organization.

We will also shine a spotlight on six local innovators who are, through their leadership, creativity and collaborative spirit, blazing trails in their fields. They are: Dr. Melissa Gilliam, Professor of Obstetrics/Gynecology and Pediatrics with The University of Chicago Medicine; Elizabeth Dozier, Principal of Christian Fenger Academy High School; Jimmy Odom, Founder and CEO of WeDeliver; Joy Bivins, Curator at the Chicago History Museum; Emile Cambry, Jr., CEO of business incubator BLUE1457; and Torrey L. Barrett, Executive Director of the K.L.E.O. Family Life Center.

I invite you to be a part of the conversation on April 30th. There is a great need for more solutions to the preparation and opportunity gaps in the African American community. Until our workforce achieves full access to training and today’s skills-driven jobs, our local economy – and jobs of the future – will be at risk. I hope to see you at the summit.

Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. For more information about the 2014 SUMMIT Luncheon visit www.thechicagourbanleague.org.