Providing resources to entrepreneurs is one of the best ways to improve the economy and create jobs. State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit said Illinois is boosting economic development by offering workshops through Small Business Development Centers, increasing grants for college, and investing in youth job programs that provide life skills to teens.
Diane Moca: Welcome to Talking Cities. I'm Diane Moca. We are with state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit who represents Aurora, Montgomery, Naperville and Oswego. She graduated from Northern in DeKalb, was a member of the US Marine Corps, served as an Aurora alderman for more than nine years, has two children, and has been a state representative since 2013. Thanks for joining us Stephanie, to talk about economic development. So what can legislature do to help areas like Aurora attract more businesses and those good paying jobs? State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit : Well, thank you for that question. And it's one on everybody's mind and what the state does is they partner with the city for economic development. We've passed legislation throughout the years to help Aurora. One of them is the river's edge tax credit, which helps old river towns like Aurora, that have a little bit more clean up, a little bit more cost in redevelopment to help mitigate those costs. In addition, with that, we work with the small business development centers, the economic development commissions, Invest Aurora and the many other avenues that are on the local level that the state can partner with. Diane Moca: But what does that really mean to the business owner? The person who's struggling, who feels like, "I don't know where the resources are, and it always seems like the big guy gets them and not the little guy." State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit : Oh, I understand that feeling too. And we need to support our small businesses, because small businesses are the economic engine. Small businesses employ upwards of like 60% of the workforce and they just bring so much uniqueness to the town. That small business owner might not even know about. In fact, small businesses might not even know about the small business development center. So, that's an avenue that they should seek out first. But in addition to that, the state works with the towns in the state. So the city of Aurora is working with the state with regards to businesses opening up in their town. So it's very beneficial for them to get assistance from the state, but also to see how they can get assistance from the town, or the city as well, to help them out. Diane Moca: And that makes sense. But I wonder how do the people who are looking through these grant applications decide who gets public funding and who doesn't. There's a lot of questions around public funds going to private businesses. State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit : Well, economic development is public funds going to private businesses. It's for development, it's for job creations. In fact, the numbers just release show that Illinois has the lowest unemployment numbers we've had in decades. So the development agreements with the city is, for the most part, the return on investment, the amount of jobs that they're supposed to create, the impact to the community that we're looking for on the state level. Where can young people learn job skills? If not for taking and businesses giving them the opportunity to start working when they're 16, and 17, and 18, so that when they want to go into the bigger job market, they have those skills worked out. So what we're seeing is a lag of 18 year olds getting their first job and then working on their work skills when they're 19 and 20, which is very frustrating to business owners, because you hear about those, "Oh, they don't have the life skills. They don't know how to dress. They don't know how to answer a phone. They don't have these skills." Well, those are skills that I developed when I was 15, 16, 17, and 18. I had four years of those skills and my kids were lucky for Jewel-Osco, but some kids aren't lucky and they're applying and they're not being hired when they're 15, 16 or 17. But from the state level, we are investing in workforce development, youth job programs for that 16, 17, 18 program during the summer times, so that they can start learning those important skills that they need. Diane Moca: And even though that investment is in economic development, do you see that having an impact on poverty and even crime when you have a program that's specifically addressing the youth not being able to find jobs? State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit : Well, it's all interconnected and people that want to give a simple answer to a complex problem are lying to you. Point fact, it's not a simple answer. But when you look at crime and poverty and you look at the data, the data shows that education helps reduce crime and poverty. Jobs help reduce it. Opportunities help reduce it. Housing stability help reduce it. It's all multifaceted in addition to addressing childhood trauma, mental health. So all those connected leads to better economic development, better communities and better workforce development overall. Diane Moca: And you talk about education, but nowadays when kids think of college, they don't even get excited thinking about parties, they get depressed thinking about student loans. So there are a lot of kids that feel like they don't want to be saddled with that, but how do we offer more non-traditional educational opportunities? I know there's trade schools, but there's so much more potentially that could be out there. And what are your feelings about what we can do to help young people who don't necessarily want to go to college and have all of that debt? State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit : Well, there're many opportunities. One of them is doing what my daughter's doing and going to a bonzi community college. Well, community colleges are so much more affordable and you get a good education, or you can go into a certificate program. You don't have to do the degree program. You can do a certificate program, you can do many other opportunities at community college. You can do it myself and my son's doing my son's currently serving in the Navy. So he's going to get out of the Navy. He's going to get his GI bill, but he's also going to get free tuition to any Illinois state college. So you can go that route. We, in our state budget, has improved grants, our map grant. We've funded that more for individuals that do want to go to college, but that feel that they can't. But in addition to that, we do have the trades and we do have other avenues. For example, my daughter's friend is a wiz at computers. Never went to college and he's doing cybersecurity for a top 100 company. So companies are understanding that some of these youth have intrinsic value, especially in coding and computers that maybe a college degree isn't really necessary. And so businesses need to look and say, "Well, do we need skills or do we need a degree?" And in fact, my daughter's friend who does have a full-time job hired on is now launching his own company on the side too. I hate to be a recording, but the small business development center has all those expert tools at your fingertips that people should use. And young people need to be employed. And we need to just work with that with the business community and to make sure that they have those skills at 18, because they've been employed at 16, and 17, and 18. Yeah. Diane Moca: And I'm going to make sure when we put this out, that we're connecting to that small business development center, through tags and links. That's what we can do nowadays. State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit : And you can interview Harriet too. Diane Moca: Yes. There you go. Well, thank you for joining us, Stephanie. State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit : No, thank you so much. Diane Moca: I appreciate it. For talking cities, I'm Diane Moca.