Workforce Network revises training plans to better serve local job seekers

WOODSTOCK – County officials are studying ways to build a more skilled workforce here rather than relying on hiring foreign workers.

The McHenry County Workforce Network plans to shift its focus to the west as it joins with Winnebago and other western counties to pursue funds for worker-training programs aimed at reducing the need to hire workers from abroad through the government’s H-1B visa program.

In the past, the county’s Workforce Network, which is funded by the federal Workforce Investment Act, has teamed with Cook County and the other collar counties. That is changing as it works on more regional projects, said Julie Courtney, director of the McHenry County Workforce Network.

In addition, the Workforce Network wants to expand its traditional training programs to better serve local job seekers, including young people and traditionally underserved special needs groups, such as ex-convicts and people with disabilities.

It plans to go after more grant funding from private foundations by capitalizing on partnerships with local schools and businesses.

Workforce Network officials and board members reviewed an updated five-year plan for the agency this week.

The McHenry County Workforce Network is working with Winnebago County and seven other western Illinois counties to secure part of $40 million made available through the federal government’s “Make It In America” grant program. The Illinois counties are seeking $1.3 million over three years to train regional workers.

The goal is to create a pipeline of local workers with the engineering skills regional manufacturing companies require.

“We want to develop our own workforce rather than have employers import workers,” said Jeffery Poynter, director of the McHenry County Workforce Network Board.

A limited number of H-1B visas are granted to foreign workers each year. Groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers want more visas for highly skilled workers but have faced opposition from labor groups. Visa caps have been a point of contention in the Senate’s immigration reform bill.

Changes to the McHenry County Workforce Network’s five-year plan will bolster the agency’s programs for young people and those with special needs.

Youth programs in the revised plan include tutoring and dropout prevention, alternative schooling, summer employment opportunities, job shadowing, internships, mentoring, job training and other support programs.

The Workforce Network will also be working to help those convicted of crimes find employment. In the past, it has handled these job seekers on a case-by-case basis. But officials want to create a full-fledged program, Poynter said.

“We’re trying to reinvent it,” he said.

Workforce Network officials met with a group of human resources professionals this week to talk about ways to help those with criminal backgrounds.

With unemployment high and a large pool of applicants, many companies are unwilling to take on extra risk by hiring people who have criminal records, said Michelle Durpetti, director of employee assistance program services at AdvantageEAP in Algonquin.

The group is working to raise awareness about the issue. It also plans to educate local employers about tax credits available to businesses that hire ex-convicts.