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Chapter 3: Workforce Development In Chicago & Cook County

This blog post is a DRAFT chapter for a book being published by Origami Works Foundation. We will correct inaccuracies in the final book version. If you identify any inaccuracies, please let us know using this Feedback Form.


The prior chapter provided an overview of workforce development generally. Think of it as a description of how the system could operate In an ideal world anywhere in the country.


Now let’s turn our attention to how workforce development actually does operate, in a real-life, complex (and windy) city: Chicago, along with the surrounding area (suburban Cook County). 


Due to Cook County’s size, its workforce development ecosystem is vast. Employers may encounter multiple entry points. While there are intermediary organizations designed to support connection to the region’s business services, knowing how to find those entities can be difficult. You’re often left to do your own research, sifting through available public resources or relying on chance networking to learn about available services.  

“The Cook County workforce ecosystem is a complex mosaic. It has a variety of funding streams and service models that cater to diverse needs. There are a wealth of opportunities, but navigating the landscape can be challenging at times. The system can sometimes be fragmented, and this can hinder our ability to match employers with the resources they need efficiently.” Matt Bruce, Executive Director, Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance 

Below we hope to provide guidance and direction by demystifying who Chicago and Cook County’s key players are, how they support employers and jobseekers, and how the entities overlap and intersect. We’ll cover...


  • Key players in the local workforce development ecosystem

  • The role and flow of public and private funding 

  • Examples of how Chicago area employers engage with the workforce ecosystem

You may be wondering, “Why Chicago and Cook County?” We think it’s necessary to look at workforce development from a local perspective, because it is always a regional endeavor, dependent on local demographics, industries, and economic factors. Chicago is a diverse economy, with no sector dominating more than 17% of employment. Additionally, we, the authors, work and / or live in Cook County; it’s the area with which we are familiar. We also think the Chicago area is an ideal case study because it happens to be massive and complicated. If you can understand Cook County, you likely can get a handle on any region!

Later we will give you strategies for how to choose and engage with the best partners for your needs. For now we’ll focus on outlining who the main players are. 


Leaders & Advocates


The following organizations serve as leaders and advocates for workforce development in Chicago and suburban Cook County. Of course there are other leaders, including nonprofit organizations, philanthropic organizations, employers, and more. We are listing the major organizations that look at the workforce ecosystem broadly, from a macro level. Many of them also serve as employer intermediaries–that is, they provide orientation to the overall workforce ecosystem in Chicago and Cook County. 


Let’s dive in and learn more about these organizations and how they collaborate with employers. 


The Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership 


As we recall from the previous chapter, federal law stipulates that states and local areas receiving WIOA funding must create workforce development boards to serve as strategic leaders of local workforce development efforts. The Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership (“The Partnership”) is the workforce development board for both the city of Chicago and suburban Cook County. 

Fun Fact: The Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership runs the largest public workforce system in the country.

A major role of The Partnership is to staff the local Workforce Innovation Board–the federally mandated body that oversees allocation of the region’s WIOA dollars (see Chapter 2 for more information about WIOA). Composed of public and private sector leaders, organized labor, economic development, education, and community based organizations as required by U.S. Department of Labor guidelines, the board is tasked with supporting innovative programs and strategies that support all the region’s workers. 

“Beyond our initial $30 million budget, we've administered over $471 million in both federal and philanthropic funds. This financial backbone enables us to sustain our initiatives and, importantly, support 7,000 to 10,000 residents in securing permanent employment each year.” George Wright, CEO, Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership

With their combined federal, state, local, and private funding, The Partnership, with input from its Workforce Innovation Board, provides grants to support three different organizational service models:


  1. American Job Centers (AJCs), a national model established under WIOA that houses a full range of employment-related services, such as career counseling, training referrals, and resume and interview prep. There are 10 American Job Centers divided evenly between Chicago and suburban Cook County. 

  2. Business services partner organizations, referred to in this case as “delegate agencies” which provide a variety of employment-related and training services for youth and adult job seekers. Interested workforce organizations apply each year to be selected as delegate agencies. The Partnership typically funds between 60-65 annually. Example delegate agencies (as of 2023) include Metropolitan Family Services, New Moms, North Lawndale Employment Network, Revolution Workshop, and the Safer Foundation

  3. Sector centers, which offer employer engagement and alignment services in high-demand sectors. In Chicago and Cook County, there are currently four sector centers representing high-demand industries: healthcare; hospitality and tourism; information technology; and transportation, distribution, and logistics.

Learn more about the Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership on their website The Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership

In addition to supporting jobseekers and employees, The Partnership helps employers in several ways:


  • They analyze and disseminate labor market information to project job growth, wages, and training requirements.

  • Through their American Job Centers and the “Level Up” campaign (launched in 2023), they coordinate recruitment events, create customized training plans and develop innovative programs for current employees and new hires, and connect employers to tax incentives and training reimbursement grants. 

  • They partner with Chicago and Cook County’s economic development agencies to help connect employers with available tax incentives and savings.

  • When a company anticipates layoffs, The Partnership can facilitate workshops for impacted staff, informing them of their rights, providing them with resources, and supporting their connection to other job opportunities. 

“Employers should partner with us to leverage pre-allocated Department of Labor funds designed for their hiring and development needs. One hundred percent of employers should understand the public workforce system, especially The Partnership's role as the main access point to these supportive funds.” George Wright, CEO, Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership 

The Partnership has helped hundreds of Chicago and suburban Cook County employers, such as University of Chicago Medical Center, Lurie Children’s, Carson Pirie Scott, Rush Medical Center, and Dominick’s.


Cook County Bureau of Economic Development


The Cook County Bureau of Economic Development plays a crucial role in supporting employers with workforce development initiatives, especially in suburban Cook County. The Bureau prioritizes sectors such as manufacturing that are rich in job opportunities. 


The Bureau conducts its own workforce assessments and analysis to identify key industry sectors, emerging skill gaps, and workforce development needs in Cook County. According to Deputy Bureau Chief Irene Sherr, “We use various data sources, including the Department of Labor and a service called Lightcast, to monitor employment trends. We also track which sectors and job types are in high demand.” Based on these analyses, the Bureau administers grants to provide financial assistance for training programs, equipment purchases, and other workforce development initiatives aimed at enhancing the skills and capabilities of the local workforce.

“By collaborating with employers, we tailor workforce programs to meet real-world demands and promote a sustainable job market.” Irene Sherr, Deputy Bureau Chief, The Bureau of Economic Growth - Cook County

The Bureau also is a huge connector. Through job fairs, recruitment events, and online resources and directories, the Bureau facilitates relationship building among employers, business services partners, and job seekers. The Bureau fosters partnerships and collaborations with industry associations, employer groups, and workforce development organizations to address workforce challenges and opportunities in key industries, especially in suburban Cook County. 

Learn more about the Bureau of Economic Development on the Cook County website.

Overall, the Bureau of Economic Development plays a proactive role in supporting Cook Country employers with workforce development initiatives. 


World Business Chicago


World Business Chicago is Chicago’s public-private economic development agency. In addition to supporting employers with relocation services and providing data insights to inform market competitiveness and labor decisions, they also help companies identify local, state, and federal financial incentives, tax abatement, and rebate programs, as well as provide connection to local workforce development agencies that can support your hiring needs. 

Learn more about World Business Chicago on their website. [World Business Chicago]

Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance 


The Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance (CWFA) was established in 2012 as a means of making more coordinated and larger investments in Chicago's workforce development ecosystem. A collaboration among private funders, foundations, and corporations, the CWFA invests in initiatives that empower businesses and employees, promote workforce systems change; and facilitate partnerships. 

“Our mission is to unite funders, encourage shared investments, and navigate the shifting interests of philanthropy. This role demands adaptability and a knack for fostering collaboration in a fragmented workforce ecosystem. It's about initiating dialogue, connecting players, and catalyzing impactful change.” Matt Bruce, Executive Director, Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance 

CWFA goes beyond funding the work of other organizations to lead innovation in the Chicago and Cook County workforce space. For example, CWFA partnered with various entities (including Origami Works Foundation) to launch Chicagoland CareerPathways and Talent Solution Connector, and also built The Innovation Nexus to maintain and improve those tools along with others. 


Another initiative facilitated by the Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance and Cook County Bureau of Economic Development, the Network of Employer-Led Business Solutions (NEWS) facilitates employer collaboration within specific industries and promotes collective problem-solving around shared business challenges. 

To do this, NEWS convenes several industry workforce “tables” where employers in healthcare, manufacturing, early childhood, or financial services come together to network, share resources, and develop common solutions. In the Chicagoland Healthcare Workforce Collaborative, for example, local area hospitals Rush University Medical Center, University of Chicago Medicine, University of Illinois Health, Advocate Aurora, and Northwestern Medicine worked together on a research study to identify and expand career mobility and pathway opportunities for frontline, patient-facing team members.


Corporate Coalition of Chicago


The mission of the Corporate Coalition of Chicago is to help companies reduce racial and economic inequities to support a thriving regional economy. 

"Members believe that to reduce long-standing economic and racial inequities and create a thriving economy, companies must stretch beyond their important philanthropic contributions and beyond the responsibility all have to help the non-profit and public sectors. Firms must challenge “business as usual” to create opportunities through their core business functions, including talent acquisition, employee support and advancement, site location, procurement, capital investments and more." Brian Fabes, Managing Director, Corporate Coalition

Through learning cohorts, webinars, and structured networking opportunities, the Corporate Coalition helps employers … 


  • Hire employees who have arrest or conviction records

  • Hire and retain young employees of color

  • Create more supportive workspaces

  • Invest in community-led real-estate investment projects

  • Grow business operations regionally


Brian Fabes, Managing Director at Corporate Coalition says that companies join them to do three main things:


  • Take action - Through initiatives to create a more vibrant, equitable and sustainable region

  • Learn - Members have access to a wide range of exclusive information channels 

  • Be a leader - By creating a new culture of doing business in Chicago and, ultimately, across the country

Learn more about the Corporate Coalition of Chicago on their website. [Corporate Coalition of Chicago]

Chicago Jobs Council 


The Chicago Jobs Council (CJC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting employment opportunities and economic advancement for individuals facing barriers to employment in the Chicago area. 


CJC is not generally an employer-facing organization. It does, however, support the workforce ecosystem, so you may want to know about its efforts. Here's a summary of what CJC does and how it can benefit employers:


  • Advocacy and Policy Development: CJC advocates for policies and programs that support workforce development, job training, and access to employment opportunities for marginalized populations. 

  • Capacity Building: CJC provides training, technical assistance, and resources to organizations and agencies working to connect individuals with employment opportunities. 

  • Research and Data Analysis: CJC conducts research and analysis on labor market trends, employment barriers, and best practices in workforce development. 

  • Partnerships and Collaboration: CJC fosters partnerships and collaboration among employers, business services partners, government agencies, and community organizations to address workforce development challenges and create pathways to employment for individuals facing barriers. By bringing stakeholders together, CJC promotes coordination and alignment of efforts to maximize impact and effectiveness.

  • Employer Engagement: CJC works to engage employers in efforts to expand job opportunities and promote inclusive hiring practices. This includes promoting awareness of the benefits of hiring individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences.


Overall, the Chicago Jobs Council contributes to creating a more vibrant and inclusive economy, by supporting workforce development ideas, initiatives, and organizations.

 

Educational Institutions


This section provides an overview of the major entities and categories of educational institutions involved in Chicago and Cook County workforce development, including 


  • Chicago Public Schools

  • City Colleges of Chicago

  • Other Community and Career Colleges

  • Four-Year Colleges and Universities


Chicago Public Schools


Chicago Public Schools wants to ensure that its students are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in the workforce. Through strategic partnerships and initiatives, CPS actively engages with businesses and industry leaders to understand current and emerging workforce needs in Chicago. 


One way CPS collaborates with employers is through its Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. These programs offer students hands-on learning experiences and industry-aligned coursework in various fields, from healthcare and information technology to manufacturing and hospitality. By working closely with local businesses, CPS develops CTE curricula that reflect industry standards and equip students with the technical skills and competencies sought after by employers.


Additionally, CPS partners with employers to provide work-based learning opportunities, such as internships, job shadowing, and apprenticeships. These experiences allow students to gain firsthand exposure to different industries, build professional networks, and develop essential workplace skills. Through feedback and mentorship from employers, students gain valuable insights into the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are valued in the workplace.


Furthermore, CPS actively seeks input from employers through advisory boards and industry partnerships. These forums provide a platform for employers to share their expertise, identify workforce trends, and inform the development of curriculum and career pathways. For example, a partnership with local healthcare providers has led to the creation of specialized health sciences programs that prepare students for careers in nursing, allied health, and medical technology. 


By fostering strong partnerships with employers, CPS ensures that its educational programs are responsive to the needs of Chicago's diverse industries and workforce. The district hopes to prepare the next generation of talent to drive innovation, growth, and prosperity in our city and beyond.


City Colleges of Chicago 


As the City’s public community college system, City Colleges of Chicago offers associate degrees, certifications, free GED classes, and free English as a second language courses. And, they serve as fertile recruiting ground for your hiring needs! Every college has a career center that employers can access to post internship or job opportunities, engage in on-campus recruitment events, or seek referrals of qualified students and graduates for open positions. 


City Colleges has worked hard to align its curriculum with high-growth, in-demand industries, collaborating with industry leaders to address existing skill gaps. Local City and County businesses have been invited by City Colleges to work with faculty to redesign curriculum, teach classes, and place students in jobs. The goal of this industry-education partnership is to ensure businesses have the skilled employees they need and students are being trained for living-wage occupations. 

“City Colleges of Chicago stands out for its accessibility. It offers diverse programs to everyone. Unlike more elite schools, City Colleges embeds itself into the community and serves as a key educational path.” Connie Rutledge, Director of Apprenticeship and Workforce Partnership Development, City Colleges of Chicago

The City Colleges system in Chicago is comprised of seven institutions, each of which serves as a “Center of Excellence” for training and education in a particular industry or industries:


  • Advanced Manufacturing: Richard J. Daley College

  • Culinary, Hospitality, and Construction Technology: Kennedy-King College

  • Healthcare: Malcolm X College

  • Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics (TDL): Olive-Harvey College

  • Education, Human, and Natural Sciences: Harry S Truman College

  • Business and Professional Services: Harold Washington College

  • Engineering and Computer Science: Wilbur Wright College


If you operate in one of these industries, developing a partnership with your related Center of Excellence will provide you with access to trained, qualified, ready-to-work candidates. Whether you make bulk hires for particular roles or engage in more individualized, one-off hiring for specialized roles, the Centers can help you with both your immediate and projected hiring needs. 


City Colleges of Chicago collaborates with employers in three key ways: 


  1. Advisory Partners help shape the institution’s curricula to match industry needs in areas such as tech, healthcare, and business, and ensure that courses stay relevant

  2. Through Program Partnerships, employers engage directly with students via career fairs, guest lectures, and mentorship, and offer insights into career paths. 

  3. As Talent Partners, employers provide internships and apprenticeships. This allows students to learn on the job and gain hands-on experience. 


A number of Chicago-based businesses have developed apprenticeship programs as a means of recruiting, training, and hiring City Colleges students. Financial services firm Aon, for example, has a robust, two-year apprenticeship program in Chicago that allows students to work full-time, attend classes to earn their Associate’s degree, and connect to mentoring and career development opportunities. Since the program’s launch in 2017, they have created more than 1,000 apprenticeship positions in the Chicago region and are expanding the program nationwide. 

“For employers, we aim to become the go-to solution for business needs in Chicago, central to talent acquisition and employee development. For students, our focus is to uncover pathways to industries and careers previously unimaginable. We hope this not only broadens their horizons but also positions them to take advantage of talent pipelines throughout the city.” - Connie Rutledge, Director of Apprenticeship and Workforce Partnership Development, City Colleges of Chicago

City Colleges’ collaboration with employers spans from occasional advisory input to deep involvement in creating career opportunities, including tailored training and reskilling initiatives.

Learn more about City Colleges of Chicago and their partnerships with employers on their website.

While City Colleges of Chicago is the largest community college system in the area, there are other career-focused colleges that collaborate with employers in various ways. See the map below for City Colleges locations as well as seven two-year institutions in suburban Cook County. 



Four-Year Colleges and Universities


Chicago and Cook County are home to many four-year colleges and universities, including world-class research institutions such as University of Chicago and Northwestern University. Most colleges and universities collaborate with employers to facilitate internships, job placements, and recruitment events, bridging the gap between academia and industry.


The region features several schools known for their high concentration of, and commitment to serving, diverse and underrepresented student populations, including low-income and first-generation students. For example, these schools may be sources of overlooked or underutilized talent pools: 


  • Northeastern Illinois University 

  • Chicago State University

  • Governors State University

  • University of Illinois at Chicago 


Community-Based Partners & Providers


Chicago is home to a robust network of community based organizations and training providers that offer a variety of overlapping business services designed to support both job seekers and employers across the employment lifecycle. In this section, we’ll describe a few categories of organizations, and highlight a few major players who have been on the scene for a long time, and are likely to stick around. We’ll cover 


  • Nonprofit business services partners

  • Adult literacy programs 

  • Supportive service agencies 


Nonprofit Business Services Partners


There are well over 100 organizations in Chicago and Cook County that promote workforce development by providing services to businesses. Additionally, there are organizations that focus primarily on other issues, such as homelessness or immigration, and also seek to connect with businesses to place their clients in gainful employment. 


Below are a few examples of these potential business services partners. But please note that there are many, many others not mentioned here, and we encourage you to explore your options based on your organization’s priorities. 

Organization

Description

Cara Collective

Connects employers with talent, for permanent, temporary, and contract positions. Also provides customized training for new hires, employees, and supervisors

Skills for Chicagoland’s Future

Coordinate custom, in-house or classroom-based programs to train job-ready candidates with the specific skills employers value

Best Buddies

Connects employers with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Jane Addams Resource Center (JARC)

Connects manufacturing employers with highly trained and skilled industry-ready graduates 


Hire360

Provides workforce services to organizations in the trades to improve and grow their teams

i.c. stars

Provides technology and IT employers with diverse talent on a contract-to-hire and direct-hire basis 

Handy Hack: Don’t stop here! Take a look at the many organizations that might spark your interest, on Talent Solutions Connector. 

Adult Basic Education and Literacy Services


For employers looking to expand their talent pools to include potential employees they might have overlooked, Chicago also has a large network of community-based organizations and programs for adults looking to earn their GED or high school diploma, learn English as a second language, or otherwise increase their literacy skills. 


In addition to language education, some of these organizations offer “bridge” programming that contextualizes learning by integrating foundational reading, math, and language skills with occupational knowledge. The target population for bridge programs is typically adults with limited academic experience and/or English proficiency who need to “bridge the gap” between their current skills and what’s needed to enter and succeed in a particular occupation. 


Often employers in a particular sector, like manufacturing, are involved in crafting the bridge programming to ensure alignment with industry standards and concepts.


Supportive Service Agencies


As an employer, you know that hiring the right person is only half the battle; retaining them is often the bigger challenge. For a variety of reasons, employees (really, any of us!) can struggle with basic needs that interfere with our ability to work. You might have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other in-house support to help your employees address their challenges. But you also might not. This is where the broader workforce system can help. 


A major feature of the workforce development ecosystem in general is connecting job seekers to supportive services–often called “wraparound supports”--that provide the stability and resources necessary to obtain and retain a job. 


For example, many workforce entities provide bus and train passes to help job seekers attend training or get to their interviews. Others provide referrals to related social service agencies that address specific needs such as child care, housing, food security, or mental health services. This vast safety net is essential to the workforce ecosystem, ensuring job seekers have their basic needs met while they search for and advance within their careers. 


For employers, connecting with these supportive service agencies can also reap dividends for existing staff who may benefit from the extra resources and supports they provide.


Funding in Chicago and Cook County  


You may be wondering: How is all this activity paid for, in Chicago and suburban Cook County? 


The answer is: Lots of ways. Funding may originate from the government or from private philanthropy. It may be directed to an organization, a specific initiative, or a particular kind of service. It may be explicitly labeled “workforce development,” or the funding may be buried in a budget for real estate development, or homelessness, or after-school programming. 


It’s impossible to describe all the sources of workforce development funding in Chicago and Cook County. In this section, we’ll describe just the major categories of funding, including 


  • Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) 

  • Good Jobs Chicago

  • Community Development Block Grant

  • Special Initiative Funding

  • Private Philanthropy 


You might want to understand the various ways workforce development is funded because you may hear these terms when engaging with the workforce ecosystem. However, since funding generally is not disbursed directly to employers, you may never need to know all this! Feel free to skip it.


Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act - In Cook County


In Illinois, for the purposes of dispersing federal WIOA dollars (as discussed in the previous chapter) the state is divided into 22 Local Workforce Innovation Areas (LWIAs). Chicago and Cook County fall under LWIA 7, which is operated by The Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership


WIOA is organized into four “titles,” serving four different purposes and worker populations. In Illinois, each of these four titles–or pots of money–is received and  administered by four different state agencies:


  • Title I—Workforce Development for Adults, Dislocated Workers, and Youth administered by the Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity (DCEO), which authorizes job training and related services to unemployed or underemployed individuals and establishes the governance and performance accountability system for WIOA. 

  • Title II—Adult Education and Literacy, administered by the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB), which authorizes education services to assist adults in improving their basic skills, completing secondary education, and transitioning to postsecondary education. 

  • Title III—Wagner-Peyser Act, administered by the Department of Employment Security (IDES), which integrates the U.S. Employment Service (Labor Exchange) into the one-stop system authorized by WIOA including equity requirements related to services for migrant and seasonal farmworkers.. 

  • Title IV—Vocational Rehabilitative Services, administered by the Department of Human Services (IDHS), which authorizes employment-related vocational rehabilitation services to individuals with disabilities. 


WIOA funds benefit employers by supporting business services offered by government agencies and nonprofit organizations, including recruiting and hiring, training and development, and retention services.


Good Jobs Chicago


In addition to federal WIOA dollars, The Partnership also pursues competitive grants, corporate sponsorships, and private philanthropic dollars to support innovative workforce programming in the area. 


One example of this is the $18.5M they received through the Good Jobs Challenge grant administered through the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Good Jobs Chicago is an employer-led, community driven initiative to promote economic resiliency and growth for Chicago and Cook County. Focusing on four sectors–manufacturing; transportation, distribution, and logistics; healthcare; and information technology–the project is designed to create durable, resilient talent pipelines through to mid-level jobs, linking Chicago’s un/underemployed residents to jobs that pay family wealth-building wages with a particular focus on meeting the needs of communities suffering from intergenerational poverty exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly on the South and West sides of Chicago and Cook County. 


Backbone entities, employers, and other stakeholders have been tasked with designing training programs that fit employer needs and are tied to employer hiring commitments. Occupational skills training, credential programs, on the job training, apprenticeships and incumbent worker training initiatives are focused on 16 high demand, high growth occupations across the four target sectors, with a goal of training 2,000 individuals and employing 1,800 over the three-year life of the grant. A barrier reduction fund to support individuals in training will support people who face multiple barriers to employment (e.g. dollars to support identified supportive service needs).


Community Development Block Grant


In the City of Chicago, community development block grant funds come to the Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) and support several programmatic areas across the city. Through DFSS’s Workforce Development and Ex-Offender Reentry division, a portion is granted to local community-based workforce organizations that serve one or more of the following three target populations:


  1. People with criminal records

  2. People who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness

  3. People with limited English proficiency


and offer one or more of the following training models:


  1. Employment preparation and placement to help job seekers obtain and retain a job.

  2. Industry-specific training in high-demand sectors that allow for career advancement opportunities.

  3. Transitional jobs to provide time-limited, subsidized employment that combines real work experience, skill development and support services 

  4. Re-entry services to provide ex-offenders/returning citizens with tailored employment support.


Again, these funds benefit employers by supporting their talent management functions at no charge. 


Special Initiative Funding


In addition to the general, federal funding described in chapter 2 and localized above, there are also occasional big, one-time government investments earmarked for a particular group of job seekers or for a particular type of programming. This funding is usually intended to help train or upskill members of the workforce to fill in-demand roles identified by local employers.


For example, in 2022, Governor Pritzker announced a $20 million investment in the Job Training and Economic Development Program (JTED). This funding was distributed to 44 community-based organizations tasked with serving more than 2,500 individuals, with a special training focus on industries hardest-hit by the pandemic. JTED was part of Illinois' workforce recovery efforts funded through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). 


In 2021, the Governor announced an $8 million expansion of the Apprenticeship Illinois program to expand innovative and high-quality apprenticeship programs that prepare Illinoisans for jobs in high-demand industries. The funding was intended to help restore the creative arts and entertainment sector, grow the capacity of pathways impacted during COVID–including healthcare, hospitality, tech, transportation, and manufacturing–and increase training opportunities for underserved populations. 


In 2019, City Colleges of Chicago was awarded $5.5 million from the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) as part of their Workforce Equity Initiative (WEI) to offer more students the opportunity to quickly complete short-term certificate programs that lead to employment in high-skilled, high-wage, and in-demand occupations. The funding was earmarked to help students, particularly those in Chicago’s South and West side communities, earn an industry-recognized credential and/or certificate (credit or non-credit) and take advantage of financial supports and last-dollar scholarships. 


While the specific initiatives listed have or will come to an end, other special initiatives will come along, often in response to labor market and economic trends. 


Private Philanthropy


While funding for workforce development can and has fluctuated over time, the overall investment trend has been downward. Even among the seemingly evergreen funding sources noted above and in Chapter 2, sustained year-to-year funding is never guaranteed. Private philanthropy is often sought to fill in the gaps where government funds leave off, and Chicago is lucky to benefit from a robust philanthropic community. 


Many foundations provide funding to support general employment preparation services and/or to support specific populations of job seekers (e.g. youth, veterans, returning citizens) or specific industries or occupations (e.g. healthcare, information technology, manufacturing). Some examples of foundations making investments in Chicago include the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, and the Polk Bros. Foundation


Chicago Employer Success Stories 


To illustrate how Chicago and Cook County employers take advantage of the workforce ecosystem, here are a few case studies. 


Zentro Internet 


Tom Vranas is the Chief of Staff, Innovation and People at Zentro Internet– a Chicago-based internet service provider dedicated to making consumer’s Internet experience simple and enjoyable. Since their founding nearly 10 years ago, Zentro Internet has been deliberate about expanding their team in Chicago and becoming a part of the communities they serve. 


To address their workforce challenges, they partner with nearly a dozen workforce development organizations in the Chicago area that work closely with job seekers; upskilling candidates, assisting returning veterans, training justice-impacted employees and more. Because of these partnerships, they don’t have the workforce challenges that others do. When Tom has open roles, his workforce organizational partners are the first place he goes to fill them. 

“Our workforce partners serve as our front lines in the hiring process. They provide highly vetted and qualified candidates and we are able to offer an opportunity to someone who traditionally may not have had access to a job in the tech industry. It’s been a great experience and one that I wish more businesses would consider adopting.” Tom Vranas, Zentro Internet

As an organization, Zentro Internet had to build comfort using an alternative hiring program, but even that effort didn’t take long. They have great partners who are invested in making sure that their candidates are successful. 


In particular, Tom’s experience and partnership with Lincoln College of Technology has been a win for their organization. Their Electrical and Electronic Systems Technology program has become his primary source for hiring for field positions. Each year, he attends job fairs, hosts invitation-only interviews with upcoming graduates, and conducts Q&A sessions with current students. Other staff at Zentro Internet have even gotten involved with the partnership by participating in these activities.


Tom has not rested on his already impressive workforce development laurels. In 2024, Zentro Internet was inducted into the Department of Defense’s Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP) program. Military spouses tend to be highly motivated and educated, but face several barriers to gainful employment. They are often moving frequently and may be stationed in communities that have limited career prospects. Unemployment rates for military spouses are significantly higher than the general population. Tom and Zentro Internet are committed to creating meaningful employment opportunities for military spouses. 


Tom says, “In some ways it feels almost too good to be true that there are organizations out there whose sole mission is to match people who are ready to work with employers who need candidates.”


Pete’s Fresh Market 


Alita Bezanis is the Director of Organizational Development at Pete’s Fresh Market, a grocery store chain in the Chicago area. 


Alita recalls a time Pete’s was opening a new store but hadn’t yet developed an HR department. There were hundreds and hundreds of applicants, and she was trying to handle it herself with one other person. It was chaotic and they had no system. Because of that, they were so thankful when they received support from Service Works, an agency through the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, and Skills for Chicagoland's Future. They helped Alita with the HR, recruiting, and screening, and through their support, Pete’s was better prepared when it came time to open additional stores.

“I'm proud to be part of an organization that invests in the communities that we serve. We happily go everywhere, including the food deserts that others may avoid. Wherever we are, we are committed to making investments in the store and beautifying our surroundings.” Alita Bezanis, Director of Organizational Development, Pete’s Fresh Market

Alita also worked with Instituto Del Progreso Latino which proved to be a wonderful resource for all of their English language learners. Alita worked with Instituto to design an English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum that included customer service language. It was such a rewarding experience for everyone, especially seeing the pride that employees felt during their graduation.


Alita also took advantage of a unique opportunity for Pete’s to collaborate with their competitors and tackle shared challenges head-on through the Reimagine Retail initiative. The most pressing issue on their radar was retention–a hurdle everyone faced. Turnover rates were really high, particularly among the cashier team. Their insights revealed that the cashier role was very demanding, prompting Pete’s to introduce a streamlined two-day onboarding process tailored specifically for cashiers.

“We went the extra mile by setting up a dedicated training workstation and implementing a weekly training program. The results have been remarkable. Not only have our retention rates improved significantly, but our cashiers have also grown more adept at handling customer interactions and their overall responsibilities. Beyond these internal gains, we've also forged stronger bonds with our competitors, fostering a sense of collaboration that goes beyond the ordinary.” Alita, Pete’s Fresh Market 

Summing Up ...  

“In Cook County, and particularly in Chicago, we're lucky to have a wealth of resources and partners. From schools to public services, there's a lot here to help people move forward. I've noticed that others, both statewide and nationally, often look to us as a model in workforce development.” Anissa' Jones, Senior VP of Employment and Human Services, E&ES

The following visual presents a (simplified!) view of the overall Chicago / Cook County workforce ecosystem. The top of this visual lists the main funding streams for workforce development in Cook County and the corresponding entities that administer them. The arrows illustrate how the funding flows to the various players in Cook County’s ecosystem. As shown by the overlapping circles, some entities receive multiple funding streams. 



Chicago and suburban Cook County are doing great work in workforce development, bridging gaps between employers and un/underemployed individuals. And, there is much more work to do! Perhaps this overview of the many, many opportunities to engage with the Chicago and Cook County workforce ecosystem will convince you to investigate further.  


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