Making the Pieces Fit: A Plan for Ensuring a Prosperous Illinois

Executive Summary


The prosperity of Illinois’ families, communities and economy are inextricably linked. When families prosper, Illinois’ tax base expands, public dependence declines, and local communities are stable and thrive. Illinois has a history of prosperity and a high standard of living. But we are facing challenges. Many working adults are not able to access jobs with family-supporting wages because they lack the education and skills training needed to advance. At the same time, many employers are finding it increasingly difficult to find the skilled employees they need. Both trends have a direct and negative impact on our economy and our communities.

As we try to address these challenges as a state, we do so with extremely limited resources. More than ever, we must invest wisely, in ways that will yield the greatest returns. This requires a thorough analysis of how we distribute our resources, the policies that affect how they are used, and the outcomes for Illinois. To this end, the Women Employed Institute and the Chicago Jobs Council offer this report, which assesses how Illinois’ workforce and economic development policies serve the needs of our families and the state as a whole. In this analysis we highlight Illinois’ strengths as well as opportunities to better leverage our workforce and economic development dollars.

A. Major Findings

1. Illinois is a prosperous state, but far too many of Illinois’ working families are not prospering.

  • Too many working families in Illinois do not earn a living wage.
  • Illinois faces a growing income disparity among its residents that threatens the stability of our communities and has negative economic and social repercussions.

2. In Illinois, there is a mismatch between worker skills and employer needs.

  • Employers are struggling to find workers with the necessary skills and education.
  • Low-income Illinoisans are experiencing increasingly limited access to education and training.
  • Illinois’ education and training programmatic outcomes can better meet the needs of workers or employers.
  • Illinois’ education and training system can be better aligned with the economic development needs of the state and the skill development needs of its workforce.

3. Illinois’ economic development strategies do not ensure the creation of jobs that help families advance to economic self-sufficiency.

  • Illinois does not link its business assistance efforts to job creation goals that target disadvantaged workers.
  • Companies that benefit from business assistance programs are not required to invest in worker training.

4. To achieve the maximum impact of workforce and economic development programs, Illinois must invest in vital work supports and ensure that workplaces allow individuals to fulfill their dual role as worker and family member.

  • Illinois’ work support system will continue to be at risk if the state does not reform its tax system and the structural issues that led to the current fiscal crisis.
  • Illinois does not currently support a program that allows families to take time off to care for sick family members, newborns, or recently adopted children without loss of wages.

B. Recommendations

Illinois can solve the mismatch between worker skill and employer demand through its education and training system

1. Integrate adult and vocational education.
Programs that teach basic literacy, numeracy, and language skills in a vocational skills training context produce greater educational and employment outcomes for the many adults who wish to enter occupational training but cannot meet entrance requirements due to low basic skills.

2. Meet the demand for need-based financial aid.
Every year an increasing number of Illinoisans are denied access to need-based financial aid because of inadequate program funding. Cuts in program funding have resulted in early suspension of awards, shrinking grant amounts, and elimination of grants for those most in need of higher education assistance. In addition to making a college education less accessible, these cuts are disproportionately affecting the state’s most disadvantaged residents, those most in need of preparation to meet employer demand for a skilled workforce.

3. Improve performance accountability.
Illinois should track and regularly report on the earnings of students in all areas of the postsecondary education and training system, particularly low-income students. This is the only way to know if our postsecondary education and training system is preparing students for good jobs with family supporting wages.

4. Link education and training to economic development by supporting short-term non-credit coursework.
Often the mismatch between the skills an employer needs and the skills an employee has can be solved with short-term non-credit coursework. Illinois can better integrate its postsecondary education system with economic development goals by providing support to institutions and students for this type of training. When possible, noncredit coursework should be linked to credit coursework as part of a career pathway approach.

5. Leverage Workforce Investment Act (WIA) and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) dollars to build skills.
WIA and TANF funds should be used by local areas and the state to bridge individuals with limited skills into intensive vocational training for career path jobs and/or postsecondary education.

Illinois can ensure that the resources invested in business assistance programs add value to Illinois’ economy, communities, and families

Ensure business assistance programs add value to Illinois.
If Illinois is to address unemployment and underemployment issues it must have business assistance programs with job creation goals that are linked to wage and disadvantaged population targets. The first and fundamental step in accountability is measuring and reporting the impact of business assistance efforts. While Illinois law will soon require business that receive incentives to track job creation and report wage ranges, Illinois should require these businesses to track and report investment in upgrade training and the degree to which disadvantaged workers benefit from job creation.

Illinois can invest in vital work supports and ensure that workplaces allow individuals to fulfill their dual role as worker and family member.

1. Reform Illinois’ tax system to support vital work support programs.
Continued support for health, human service and education programs means addressing Illinois’ structural deficit. Illinois must reform its tax system so it can generate enough revenue to protect core programs that positively impact our communities.

2. Create a family medical leave insurance program in Illinois.
At some point, most adults need time off from work to deal with a serious personal or family medical emergency. And new parents need time off to nurture and bond with their newborn or newly adopted children. The federal Family Medical Leave Act helps some workers, but is not a financially viable option for most working families. Illinois needs to institute a Family Medical Leave Insurance program so that individuals do not have to choose between work and family.

C. Methodology

Making the Pieces Fit is based on over 100 data, policy, and performance indicators. For a full list of indicators and sources please visit the Publications section at or

For the last three years, the Annie E. Casey Working Poor Families project has worked to develop an assessment tool to evaluate states’ efforts to address the needs of working families and the economy. Each year, five states have been selected to participate in the project. A guiding philosophy of the project is that states need good data and information to make good policy decisions. Over 100 indicators form the basis of this report: data-based indicators, policy indicators, and performance indicators. The data-based indicators are obtained primarily from the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Current Population Survey (CPS). Policy indicators have been obtained from various sources including public code and regulations, published reports, and policy advocates and analysts. Whenever possible, these indicators have been confirmed by state and federal agencies. Performance indicators are obtained from official performance reports as well as independent published assessments. Because of the large number of indicators that support our analysis, we have chosen not to cite sources in the text. However, a full list of indicators with citations and dates appears in an online appendix available in the Publications sections at

D. Acknowledgements

The Women Employed Institute and the Chicago Jobs Council gratefully acknowledge the support of our project funders, The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Ford Foundation, as well as the national project team including Brandon Roberts, Andrew Reamer, and Sarah Rab of Brandon Roberts and Associates, and Kerri Rivers at the Population Reference Bureau. We would also like to thank the state agencies who provided the data, information, and feedback that made this report possible, including the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the Illinois Community College Board, the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Illinois Department of Employment Security, the Illinois Department of Human Services, Secretary of State Jesse White’s office, the Illinois State Board of Education, and the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. We also thank the numerous organizations who offered information and insight including the AFL-CIO, the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, Chicago Women in Trades, the Day Care Action Council of Illinois, Erie Neighborhood House, Good Jobs Illinois, the Health and Medicine Policy Research Group, Laborer’s International Union, the Legal Assistance Foundation, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, UIC Great Cities Institute, Voices for Illinois Children, and Work, Welfare and Families. In addition to the national project team, Benna Lehrer of WEI and Lisa Hampton of CJC collected and confirmed project indicators.

Making the Pieces Fit was written by Rachel Unruh of the Women Employed Institute with contributions from Whitney Smith of the Chicago Jobs Council.

Women Employed (WE) is one of the nation’s foremost advocates for women’s economic advancement. Since its founding in 1973, the organization has won historic changes in public and private sector policies that have expanded women’s opportunities and improved workplaces throughout the country. Women Employed has two main goals: to create pathways to good jobs for low-income people and to ensure equal employment opportunity and fair workplace practices. The organization promotes changes in both government and business practices and develops innovative programs to overcome employment barriers.

Founded in 1981, the Chicago Jobs Council (CJC) is an organization that works with its members to ensure access to employment and career advancement opportunities for people in poverty. With 18 original members, CJC has grown to include 100 community-based organizations (CBOs), civic groups, businesses and individuals committed to helping disadvantaged Chicagoans gain access to the jobs and training they need to enter the labor market, secure stable employment at a living wage, and pursue sustainable careers. CJC pursues its mission through advocacy, applied research, public education and capacity-building initiatives focused on influencing the development or reform of public policies and programs.

In 2003, Women Employed and the Chicago Jobs Council launched the Illinois Career Pathways Initiative to increase certificate and degree completion among low-income women and minorities, leading to good jobs in fields of economic importance to Illinois. For more information about the Illinois Career Pathways Initiative, please visit the Women Employed website at or contact Toni Henle, Director of Workforce Development Policy at 312-782-3902 or