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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Regional Transportation Priority Moves Forward

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, July 20, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
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Our transportation network is critical to the growth and development of the region. Over the years, community leaders have identified top transportation priorities then marshaled the resources to make those projects happen.

Construction of projects like the Indiana Toll Road, U.S. 31, U.S. 20, Indiana 23 and Indiana 331/Capital Avenue have all helped better connect our local communities and have especially helped our businesses move goods and services in and out of our region.

Because of the high costs often associated with the design, planning, right of way acquisition and construction, many of those projects have spanned long periods of time from the introduction of the concept to the final construction. For example, Capital Avenue was on the drawing board for about 50 years. U.S. 31 has been a priority for even longer.

In the last decade, major construction projects have been completed on U.S. 31 between South Bend and Indianapolis, cutting significant time off a trip to the capital city and making it much safer. Improvements on six stoplight intersections, two railroad crossings, 100 intersections and 200 driveways remain on the wish list.

In the 1950s, work began on the U.S. 31 Bypass around South Bend. In 1967, plans were made to extend U.S. 31 north from the state line to Interstate 94. Leaders saw the road as a vital artery to the region, connecting two busy interstate highways and opening up new development opportunities in the corridor.

In the early 1970s that construction began and portions of the roadway moved forward until it was interrupted in the late 1990s by a rare butterfly. The proposed roadway cut through an area that was the habitat of this endangered species. Construction was halted near Napier Avenue in Benton Harbor.

For close to 20 years, construction of the final phases, connecting the roadway to I-94, has been in limbo. Concerns over the butterfly habitat and the lack of adequate funding left the road’s future in jeopardy. In the meantime, businesses and consumers have longed for the completion of this important improvement.

Earlier this month, Michigan announced plans to move the project forward. The final phase of the U.S. 31 corridor project in Berrien County has been added to the Michigan Department of Transportation’s five-year plan. That plan includes an initial appropriation to finish right of way work for the corridor.

The completion of the original plan won’t happen overnight, but the good news is that for the first time in several decades, it’s on the priority list and back on the top of minds of legislative leaders from across Michigan thanks to the efforts of state Rep. Al Pscholka, MDOT Director Kirk Steudle, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

The project will be broken into three phases, including the connection of U.S. 31 to I-94, the replacing of the interchange at downtown Benton Harbor and the resurrecting of 10 miles of I-94 in this area. The project is estimated to cost $92 million.

Though the project sits across the state line, it is vital to the South Bend area. Southwest lower Michigan boasts numerous tourist destinations that have become popular get-a-ways for Indiana residents. And businesses see the I-94 connection as a key connection to important markets like Chicago, Detroit, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.

Our region is growing, and that includes the north part of the region in Cass and Berrien counties. The construction of this final link will position the region to better take advantage of future development opportunities.

Also published in the South Bend Tribune 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Teens Build Skills on Job

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, July 7, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
 Comments (1)

I started mowing grass and shoveling snow in the neighborhood when I was very young. Shortly thereafter I began looking after neighborhood kids. I worked a regular shift at my family’s drugstore. I later cleaned the meat room at a grocery store, cashiered at a retail outlet and tried my hand in an Elkhart factory.

I wasn’t alone. Many of my friends and classmates also entered the workforce at a young age — bagging groceries, flipping burgers, scooping ice cream, delivering newspapers or lifeguarding at the local pool. The opportunities seemed plentiful and we had many chances to try our hands at different things.

My chief objective in those assignments was to make a few dollars. As I got older, I realized I needed money for those things I was most interested in.

At the same time, I was learning many valuable lessons about being in the workforce that I believe have helped me be a better employee, co-worker and boss. My education in the classroom was important. But the education I was getting in the workforce was also critical.

I learned a lot about responsibility, about problem solving, about critical thinking. My employer and our customers were counting on me, and I didn’t want to let them down. I learned about working in teams and about getting along with co-workers. I got a feel for what I was interested in, and more importantly what I wasn’t. My future career interests were largely shaped by those early experiences.

My story is not unlike most from my generation. But our story is proving to be very different than today’s young people who are preparing to enter the workforce. Employment among those between the ages of 16 and 19 is at its lowest point in decades according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And BLS predicts it will continue to decline over the next decade.

Overall, the labor force participation rate among all ages is 62.6 percent. (The labor force participation rate is those people either working or actively seeking work). Among 16- to 19-year-olds nationally, that rate is now just 34 percent, down almost 20 percent over the past 20 years.

Locally, only about 28 percent of those 16- to 19-year-olds eligible to participate are actually participating. The demands of school, sports and other extracurricular activities contribute to the declining numbers. In addition, fewer employment opportunities exist today. Many of those positions traditionally held by young people were filled by older adults during the height of the recession.

Employers’ chief complaint these days is about the workforce and the lack of soft skills, those personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people. Many workers haven’t had the opportunities like I and others did when we were younger to develop those key skills in an entry level position.

Employers need to recognize the important role they play in the talent pipeline and once again make available entry level positions for young people seeking experience. Though youths may be raw in experience, their enthusiasm and exuberance as well as the fresh perspective from a new generation of worker can be an important asset for the company.

But the real responsibility lies with parents. Parents must encourage their children find a job to gain that valuable work experience. It doesn’t have to be glamorous or even in line with a student’s career aspirations, just something to give them those valuable life lessons. Young people have to start at the bottom and work their way up. Their long-term success and the long-term success of our economy depend on it.

Source: South Bend Tribune, July 6, 2016