At a meeting with the Daily Herald editorial board this week, Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin reflected on the usual topics -- political dysfunction in Washington, the outlook for Democrats in the coming elections, transportation, health care, and so on. But some of his most engaging, locally relevant thoughts emerged before the formal interview even got under way.
After a brief diatribe on the growing danger of for-profit colleges, the senator launched into an impromptu reflection on the increasingly valuable role he sees for community colleges in the 21st century economy. He described "the community college" as a central player not only in helping American students get an affordable head start on their advanced education but also in terms of providing a solid foundation for meeting real needs of the existing economy.
As high school juniors and seniors and their families spend the fall staring down the imposing prospect of university tuitions and the apprehension of today's job market, and in a region well stocked with some of the best community colleges in the country, his remarks bear repeating.
He began by saying he sought this year to visit "Illinois businesses that have done well and are hiring." What did he find?
"They're everywhere. They're everywhere," he emphasized. "And most of them are desperate for people to hire. They cannot find skilled people to hire."
Community colleges, Durbin said and we agree, can be the bridge to connect skill-hungry employers with job-hungry young high school graduates. Programs like a pilot partnership at Harper College in Palatine, where the school works with local manufacturers to provide concentrated training and paid internships, are an excellent beginning.
Awareness efforts, like a recent field trip in which the McHenry County Economic Development Corp. took more than 800 students from local high schools to the International Manufacturing Technology Show at McCormick Place, also help.
"We want to see a strong bond built between manufacturing and high schools and the community college because we need to make sure we have the workforce for the future," MCEDC President Pam Cumpata told us, describing the agency's work with McHenry County College and Elgin Community College in programs similar to Harper's.
Durbin praised such educational efforts and added, in terms that succinctly reinforced the need for investment in community colleges, "We have a lot of good-paying jobs out there going unfilled, and we need to think more aggressively about filling them."
It was an interesting, and not a little ironic, opening to a conversation in which national topics and broad economic issues dominated. But for tens of thousands of high school seniors, it may touch closer to home than most other ideas that come out of Washington this fall.