PEORIA — By July, Illinois Central College will have placed 15 students in a newly revamped apprenticeship for industrial maintenance. The students can earn while they learn, as ICC puts it.

One aspect of Andrew Kerr’s job in the new position of associate vice president of workforce development involves helping ICC develop many more similar apprenticeship programs in health care, information technology and manufacturing.

There’s a simple reason the programs don’t exist already, Kerr says.

“Higher education has been wonderful at building programs that there’s no need for.”

Kerr’s role and other changes represent how the college is reinventing itself to meet the needs of employers, prospective employees, and the economic vitality of the area, according to ICC President Sheila Quirk-Bailey.

Forty percent of adults in the Peoria region have some kinds of post-secondary credential, she says, whether it’s a degree, an apprenticeship or a certification denoting specific skills.

“That means 60 percent don’t,” she continues, “and that percentage is exactly inverted from what you need to have a growing economy.”

Area employers struggle to find skilled workers, particularly in health care, IT and manufacturing. Quirk-Bailey says the three areas are dealing with “major shortages,” forcing local employers to recruit workers from out-of-town.

The skills gap also makes it difficult to attract and retain businesses. Meanwhile, many workers are stuck in low-paying jobs because they don’t have the skills employers need.

In its reinvented role, ICC wants to more responsive to industry needs, Kerr says.

For example, under the old model, the industrial maintenance program was known as mechatronics, which combines skills in electronics, mechanics and computer operations. Students could earn an associate’s degree within two years.

In the new model, renamed industrial maintenance to match industry standards, students go back and forth between intensive classroom training and intensive on-the-job training, applying the skills they learn in class. They’re students, but they’re also paid employees during the 2½-year program, eligible to graduate with an associate's degree, industry certification and the guarantee of a well-paying job. Employers pay tuition.

The employers who sponsor them are essentially growing a trained workforce at a lower cost than if they used current hiring models to find skilled employees. The students are employees who happen to be taking classes, Kerr says.

Three manufacturing companies, including Caterpillar Inc., have already signed on with the industrial maintenance programs. Kerr and Quirk-Bailey are recruiting other companies.

Kerr estimates 200 to 300 people will apply for 15 slots. He predicts 30 to 45 will be qualified applicants, which leads to the aspect of workforce development he’s most passionate about.

If only 15 people get into the program, that means 185 to 285 won’t.

He wants to make sure the 15 to 30 other qualified applicants know of other options and that the vast majority take steps to become qualified, including passing tests on English and basic mechanics. Applicants must have also have two years of high school algebra and a year of geometry.

“I’m not concerned about getting qualified applicants, I’m concerned about making sure no one is left behind.”

His position coordinates the work of four departments — workforce development, college and career readiness, corporate and community education, and career services. Those departments, as well as the college’s other department, can offer help to students who don’t qualify, such as enrolling in math classes.

An ICC alumnus with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Western Illinois University, Kerr worked in adult education programs for 25 years. He says he saw how generational poverty stunted opportunities.

“That opened my eyes to a whole group of people who really want to succeed but don’t have the tools,” he says. “Providing those tools has been my mission for the last 25 years.”

Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.