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Irene Sherr of the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development: Leading Sustainable Growth and Job Creation



Irene Sherr

Deputy Bureau Chief

Cook County, Bureau of Economic Development


Irene Sherr, an urban planner, has worked in both the public, nonprofit and private sectors over her 30+ year career. The throughline of her work is innovative program development and implementation across Chicagoland. Her commitment and passion drive community enhancement and support initiatives to advance job opportunities and economic growth. Her leadership is marked by a commitment to inclusive, sustainable and equitable development. Her unique blend of tenacity and collaborative skills has not only accelerated project success but also enriched the communities she serves. She has worked in a number of spheres including commercial district development and management, community engagement, planning and promotion and management, creative placemaking and events, and more.


Tell us about your current role and organization.


As Deputy Bureau Chief for Economic Development, I lead and manage a suite of ‘business facing' programs including: Small Business Support, Sector Development, and Talent Solutions to foster equitable growth and job creation. For example, we assist COVID-affected small businesses through a 50-partner network and just awarded $50 million in grants to 3000 small businesses negatively impacted by COVID. We prioritize sectors, like manufacturing and clean energy, that are rich in job opportunities. By collaborating with employers, we tailor workforce programs to meet real-world demands and promote a sustainable job market. 


In doing this work, we administer a range of federal funds, which has recently been bolstered by ARPA funding. This funding has significantly accelerated our capacity for impactful work, setting the stage for long-term prosperity in the county.


What was your first job and how old were you when you started working?


My first paid job was babysitting in my hometown of Tarrytown, New York. During high school I provided childcare services to neighborhood families. I used that experience to transition into various camp counselor roles. I also had my fair share of serving as a wait person in places one might now call a “dive bar.” These roles were invaluable for teaching me about customer service, multi-tasking, and working under pressure. The hands-on experience with a diverse clientele and fast-paced environments equipped me with soft skills that have been immensely beneficial throughout my career.


Did your educational path mirror that of your family’s, or did you take a different path?


My family prioritized education, as it represented something that no one could take from you once you had it. This set the stage for my own college journey. What really piqued my interest in the urban environment was an urban sociology class in college. Fieldwork for the course in St. Louis neighborhoods opened my eyes to the need for urban planning and community engagement, and I went on to major in Urban Studies. Encouraged by my professors, I transitioned directly to graduate school and earned a master’s in city planning. This has kept me on a focused path in the field.


What has your career progression looked like?


Starting with a role at the City of Chicago's Economic Development Commission, I spent seven years honing my skills managing various infrastructure investments in the Chicago’s industrial areas, which had been overlooked, as I was told “businesses don’t vote.” I also worked on the re-opening of Navy Pier, and then began commercial revitalization work in Rogers Park, followed by several years focused on neighborhood economic development, particularly in Hyde Park, which for many years lacked much in the way of commercial services.  A decade ago, I pivoted to county-level initiatives.

Despite the hurdles, the opportunity to contribute to meaningful societal change while growing professionally makes it all worthwhile.

Working in Harold Washington's administration exposed me to progressive planning policies and organizing. As a young planner, I had the opportunity to participate and witness a historic period in Chicago. As I began to raise a family, I focused on balancing work and family life. I value persistence, a passion for community upliftment, and the importance of teamwork.


What is it like to work at the Bureau? What makes it special or unique?


I love working at Cook County. President Toni Preckwinkle's commitment to equity and sound fiscal management along with her straightforward and authentic leadership style fuels our work. With our own Bureau, we have strong leadership, dynamic colleagues, and an interesting and impactful range of programs and projects.   



Federal ARPA funding has further empowered us to innovate in crucial areas like equity and community engagement. We do face challenges, such as sustaining our programs as COVID funding diminishes and navigating a cautious regulatory environment. However, we're actively addressing these issues, making improvements in systems and processes. Despite the hurdles, the opportunity to contribute to meaningful societal change while growing professionally makes it all worthwhile.


Can you share your perspective on the current state of the labor market in Cook County? What key statistics does your Bureau use to assess its health?


Overall, the labor market is strong with low unemployment rates, but there are communities in both the city and the suburbs with high levels of unemployment. While the general rate is around 3-4%, some pockets experience rates of 8-10%. 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. Notably, unemployment among 25- to 34-year-olds in certain areas can be as high as 24%, and there has been a decline in Black employment and labor force participation.


In addition to clean energy and manufacturing, are there any other sectors that you see as promising?


Transportation, distribution, and logistics offer many jobs, but they're a mixed bag. Chicago leads in logistics due to its location, and companies like Amazon are major employers offering competitive entry-level salaries. However, these jobs often lack long-term career pathways and can be physically demanding. Additionally, this sector raises environmental concerns such as pollution and traffic. As a result, we have focused our resources on other sectors.

The notion of a 'good job' has evolved to include factors like workplace belonging and employee voice.

An interesting new frontier is quantum computing, and Chicago is a hub for it. Right now, the field requires specialized skills like engineering PhDs, but it's evolving. This technology has the potential to significantly impact various sectors, even at the elementary school level. It's an area worth exploring further.


Besides increasing salaries, what additional strategies should employers consider for attracting talent? How can they leverage underutilized funding streams or programs to improve recruitment and retention?


Employers facing talent shortages might want to re-assess their company’s internal culture and workspace to attract a diverse range of candidates. The notion of a 'good job' has evolved to include factors like workplace belonging and employee voice. To address this, various underutilized resources exist, such as incumbent worker training funds. Organizations like the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center can help simplify these bureaucratic processes.


For targeted assistance, employers can explore the resources available through the Talent Solutions Connector, or service providers like OAI or Hire 360, depending on their industry and location. 'Try before you buy' programs like Opportunity Works offer employers pre-screened candidates for a no-cost trial, with an 86% success rate in hiring or further education upon program completion. Apprenticeships offer an ‘earn and learn model' but requires an investment from the employer. In summary, multiple pathways are available to meet hiring needs; it's about choosing the right one and being proactive in both internal and external avenues.


How, if at all, do you believe Chicagoland employers should contribute to addressing poverty and inequality in Cook County neighborhoods?


I think a great example of how employers can contribute to addressing poverty and inequality is the Discover Customer Care Center in Chatham. Discover made a conscious decision to locate a facility in a challenged neighborhood and then hired locally, within five miles of their facility. This reduced commuting stress for employees and had a significant impact on retention rates, which in turn saved the company money. 

So, investing in your community and workforce isn't just a good deed—it's a strategic business decision that pays off.

Additionally, Discover committed to buying local, from food to janitorial services, investing around $2 million a year in local businesses. They've even opened their facility to the community for events at no charge. So, by local hiring and sourcing, they're directly investing in the community and making a tangible difference. 


The University of Chicago is another example. They have focused on local hiring and supply chain investments. They recognize that as an anchor institution, their purchases have an economic impact. These approaches not only benefit the organizations but also contribute meaningfully to the local economy and community.


Why should employers consider investing in local communities and workforce development? What kind of support might they need to make these investments effectively?


I'd say the advantages are both immediate and long-term, and they go beyond just creating goodwill. Take the example of the German American Chamber of Commerce. Their apprenticeship programs require an initial outlay, but the data shows they lead to a more skilled workforce and improved retention, offering a high return on investment. Furthermore, this isn't just about enhancing your labor force; it's about building a better, more responsive business. 



Employers investing in local communities also need support, particularly in understanding the holistic challenges their employees face daily. BMO Harris Bank is a great case in point. They partnered with the organization Cara Collective to better understand the holistic challenges their employees face, leading to more empathetic management and practical business gains like increased account openings. So, investing in your community and workforce isn't just a good deed—it's a strategic business decision that pays off.


What challenges or obstacles have prevented you or the Bureau from implementing desired support for employers?  What strategies are in place to combat these problems?


Engaging with smaller employers is challenging due to their time constraints and skepticism towards government programs. To address this, we collaborate with organizations like the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership to streamline job training and placement efforts. 


We also manage a $4 million fund as part of the Good Jobs Challenge to tailor training in sectors like healthcare and manufacturing. The challenge isn't just about skills; it's also about making jobs more attractive to potential employees. A limitation we face is the educational system's shift away from vocational training, which impacts the talent pipeline for careers not requiring a college degree.


What's the one key takeaway you'd like employers to have after reading this interview with you?


I'd encourage employers to reach out to local resources—whether it's a community organization or an elected official. While it might take a bit of patience, there are support systems and resources available in government or the nonprofit sector that can help address the talent needs they may have. Most employers do not realize that there is a public workforce system available to support them and help job seekers find jobs.


Why is it personally important to you to support employers and entry-level talent from historically excluded communities?


People need employment training and opportunities and it is our responsibility in government to make sure people have access to healthcare, housing, and employment. Businesses create opportunities for people to improve their lives and find a pathway forward. This is a bit simplistic to say it like this, but to reduce the gun violence in the city, we need to provide people with better access to a good education and jobs.

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