Fact Sheets and Materials

SIUE hosts bioeconomy event

March 27, 2017
Effort made to bridge skills gap between residents, jobs

Photo: Steve Horrell • Intelligencer

Panelists at the Building Illinois Bioeconomy consortium are, from left, Matt Jones, Alex Bradley and Melissa Erker.

Not long ago, a couple of teams of graduate students at SIUE surveyed their colleagues on campus to find out whether they could come up with a definition for the term bioeconomy. Bioeconomy had been a buzzword in Washington, D.C. circles, but experts in the field were discovering that at campuses across the country it had mostly been drawing blank stares. What the teams at SIUE, who were working on their senior projects at the time, found were results similar to the national findings.

“It was a learning opportunity, said Courtney Breckenridge at a consortium Thursday called Building Illinois’ Bioeconomy. Breckenridge is project director of the BIB Consortium. She spoke to dozens of area employers, and representatives of non-profit groups and government agencies in hopes they would return to their jobs and spread the word about a program that has been striving to bridge the skills gap between area residents and available jobs in areas such as water and wastewater management and bioprocess operations.
When the graduate students asked a follow up question to see whether their colleagues were interesting in knowing more about bioeconomy, Breckenridge says what they heard was a polite but resounding “No, not really.”
“That was a teaching moment,” Breckenridge said. “We need to learn how to talk about this and then connect to things that are going on directly around us.”

The consortium was formed in 2014 with a $10 million grant from the US Department of Labor. Today SIUE is leading a collaboration with four other Illinois community colleges: Lewis & Clark, Southeastern Illinois College, Lincoln Land, and Carl Sandberg College. The program falls into six clusters: bioprocessing, bioenergy, water management, restoration ecology, process maintenance, and integrative studies.

“Our programs range from short, six-month certificates to four-year degrees, with an emphasis on flexibility, giving students credit for knowledge they’ve already gained through the military or previous employment, and on and off ramps to earning future credentials,” said Breckenridge, who is also working on a master’s degree at SIUE in Communications with an emphasis on media and public policy.

Bob Daiber spoke to the group as well. Daiber taught in area public schools for 28 years and has been Madison County Regional Superintendent of Schools since 2007. He asked the audience to look around the tables where they were sitting and pick out something they thought was a millimeter thick. Most chose a piece of paper. Next, he asked them to hold up their thumb and forefinger to demonstrate a quarter of an inch.

“That’s called conceptual measurement,” he said. “These are skills that kids don’t typically think about in our digital world. They are concepts that they have to understand in the technical world. They are concepts they have to understand if they’re going to speak the technical language.”

“When someone says kids need more math, what they actually need is more technical application to have a skill set in today’s world.”