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Local

Help wanted: Skills gap needs to be filled

STERLING – Workforce development and the need for better rural broadband were among the topics Thursday in a roundtable with one of the Sauk Valley's federal stewards.

Sterling was one of four stops U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos was making in the smaller communities in her district to hold roundtable discussions designed to get a better picture of some of the obstacles facing her constituents.

The Democratic congresswoman toured the Whiteside Area Career Center Thursday and spent the rest of the morning with "thought leaders," discussing everything from the difficulty of navigating student financial aid to the impact of student loan debt to how to fill jobs at Halo once its expansion is complete.

Consistently, one of the top concerns districtwide is how to fill the skills gap in the workforce, Bustos said.

"There are jobs here, and we have to think of creative solutions to fill them."

Heather Sotelo, executive director of the Greater Sterling Development Corp., noted that the Sauk Valley had 1,100 people unemployed in June, and 400 who just graduated high school.

Using Halo as an example, she said students can be trained to fill the 350 jobs that will need to filled, but that still isn't enough to fill all positions.

"We still need folks to come here," Sotelo said.

Bustos said it's worth finding out why students leave and what can be done to attract more to the area.

Another top concern from her constituents is broadband internet, Bustos said. Statewide, 39 percent of rural residents have no access to high-speed internet, according to Federal Communications Commission.

State and federal funding is helping address the lack, but rural cooperatives also could play a role.

"I think we need to partner, aggressively, with the rural cooperative extensions, the folks who brought electricity to our towns back in the 1940s," she said.

"I think they can be part of the solution."

To forge these partnerships, there must be a financial incentive from the government, she added.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker tasked the Illinois Department of Agriculture earlier this year with addressing the problem and developing a solution, with the help of $420 million approved by the Legislature.

Mayor Bill Wescott said Rock Falls is "fortunate" to have its own public utilities and has worked hard to become a gigabit city, but thinks more should be done for municipalities to tap into funding.

"Comcast and other folks are not going to come out here and spend millions and millions of dollars," Wescott said.

After her roundtable, Bustos spent some time in the village of Deer Grove, taking a tour of the Green River Wind Farm and promoting her Rural Green Partnership, a framework of principles and policies that work with federal, local and state governments, producers, businesses, unions, nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders to combat climate change and spur economic growth.

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