High taxes, uncertainty with state government and rising health care costs continue to be the key challenges facing suburban companies, according to a survey of suburban business executives conducted by Northern Illinois University's Center for Governmental Studies in partnership with the Daily Herald and Daily Herald Business Ledger.

On the positive side, the state's geographic location, pool of quality employees and large market are considered key advantages of doing business in Illinois, the survey found.

The results were presented Thursday before a group of 130 suburban executives at the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Schaumburg.

NIU surveyed 3,000 companies with 10 or more employees in the six-county Chicago metropolitan region and collected data during the period between December 2016 and May 2017.

Overall, 53 percent of the respondents listed high taxes as the main obstacle of doing business in Illinois, with government dysfunction and strict regulations following. Two of five respondents believe business conditions have gotten worse in the past six months, while the same amount believe it will get worse over the next six months.

A panel of experts discussing the findings noted the current climate in the state -- especially with taxes and governmental decision -- has led to increased uncertainty among business owners to invest or grow in the state.

"I have clients who hold off on doing things. They miss opportunities because they're worried about what's going to happen," said Tom Jordan, a principal with the accounting firm DHJJ.

Daniel Coman, a partner with law firm Ice Miller, noted businesses are also saddled by the number of taxes from many levels of government.

"Illinois is an extraordinary heavy tax burden," Coman said. "We have more government units than any other state in the country."

Much of the panel discussion focused on finding and retaining quality employees -- another concern expressed in the survey. A total of 74.9 percent of respondents said it is somewhat or very difficult to recruit high-quality job candidates, while 31.8 percent said skilled labor is lacking in the state.

Brian Richards, assistant director of the NIU Center for Governmental Studies, said he has seen a drop in the labor participation rate due to factors such as Baby Boomers retiring and a decrease in the number of working college students.

Coman noted companies that are successful in finding people treat hiring as an ongoing process, not just when they need people.

"They're constantly trying to create a pipeline of high quality talent for the organization, even if they're not in a position to hire at this second," he said.

Oscar Johnson, regional president and head of Illinois business banking for BMO Harris, added that businesses are becoming more involved with high schools and educational facilities in order to get young people interested in skilled labor jobs.

"It's getting the students who we know may not ultimately choose college as their option and actively recruiting and training them so once they're finished, you have your own talent pool to choose from," Johnson said.

Competition for skilled employees is so great that maintaining a good workplace culture is vital to keeping your employees from going elsewhere, all the panelists agreed.

"Culture is everything," DHJJ's Jordan said. "If you've got a negative atmosphere, you can't pay (employees) enough to overcome that."

Marty Koehler, vice president with human resources firm Assurance, added the company's culture starts from the top, and leaders should be asking employees questions and act on what they say.

"It's the willingness to ask and taking action upon it," Koehler said. "The worst thing in the world is to ask a question and not do anything about it, that actually has a double negative impact."

Detailed information on the survey will be published in the Oct. 16 issue of the Daily Herald Business Ledger.

Sponsors of the event include Assurance, BMO Harris Bank, DHJJ, Ice Miller, Northern Illinois University, Fairfield Inn & Suites, The Management Association, Towneplace Suites Marriott and Ziegler Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram.