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Taking Steps to Build a Skilled Workforce By Kim Furness

In a recent discussion about Jeff Bezos, my son said, “You can’t become a billionaire in America without trodding all over the little guy and taking advantage of people.” Things that make me go hmmm. Amazon has recently been criticized by Bernie Sanders for its treatment of employees and workers at Amazon’s Minnesota facility went on strike during Prime Days to protest working conditions. This is hardly surprising as so many business models today are productivity based instead of people based. I invite you to read further.

Bezos has been listening and took action by raising Amazon’s minimum wage to $15/hour last year. Amazon’s next move? It will use robots to replace lower skilled jobs. However, instead of giving those employees the boot, they are going to spend $700 million to retrain 1/3 of the workforce by 2025. The program is voluntary, and it may not be doable for everyone, but it’s a chance for current employees to elevate to ‘safer’ employment grounds.

Bezos is borrowing from the Henry Ford playbook and investing in labor in order to stay ahead of the pack in the competition for skilled labor. In 1913 the turnover at the Ford Motor Company was so bad they had to hire over 52,000 men just to keep a workforce of 14,000. In a bold move Ford upped his employees’ pay from $2.25/day to $5.00/day. This was twice the average wage of other automotive employees of that era. Most other auto manufacturers reduced wages as much as possible. He believed that higher wages would guarantee the retention of the highest quality workers who could handle the demands of the assembly line. Bezos, like Ford, recognizes that building his own talent pool should play out in a similar fashion for Amazon.

Now think about Peoria’s economic climate. What are we pushing to revitalize our economic status? Manufacturing. There are 600,000 manufacturing jobs in America and roughly 21,000 are right here in Peoria-Tazewell County. Out of these 600,000 workers, half are expected to retire over the next 10-15 years. Mark Denzler, The CEO of the Illinois Manufacturing Association (ISMA), says America “needs to replace these workers at a rate of 20,000 workers and 3,000-5,000 engineers each year for the next decade.” This correlates to needing 700 workers and up to 175 engineers in the Peoria-Tazewell area each year for the next decade.

What is being done to compete for skilled workers in Illinois? The manufacturing industry and ICC are building their own talent pool by offering qualified applicants apprenticeship programs. The program combines paid on-the-job training with tuition free associate degrees.

If you are a displaced worker, this opportunity to elevate to ‘safer’ employment grounds may be for you. You can’t rely on unskilled labor to survive. The writing has been on the wall so long it’s been painted over with pretty murals. This is a chance to breathe new life into our communities through greater education, skills and cashflow.

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