A consultant listed four of the most pressing issues in our community:  education, housing, food security and transportation. Because people do not have equitable access to these four intrinsic needs, he said, people’s access to livelihood, opportunity and quality of life are threatened.

Yet missing from this list of top things we were to care about that day was anything to do with jobs, workforce development or economic opportunity. In response to my observation, the consultant suggested that business issues could be swept into education under vocational training.  

I wasn’t satisfied.  Too often we think only about K-12 when we talk education.  And, focusing on just training young people leaves out the ongoing work that needs to be done on the employer side, assuming there are accessible employers with available jobs.  

Education made the list but brought with it so many systemic issues that job training was an afterthought. Transportation made the list without reference to where people are going.  To their jobs, right? Where are the jobs?  More affordable housing doesn’t imply that more jobs nearby will materialize overnight.  Local economies are a primary concern, not a residual outcome.

As someone who thinks about small business All. The. Time., it catches me off guard when economic development doesn’t make the list.  There seems to be an underlying assumption that if we focus on human needs alone, the free market system will automatically attract profitable investment to fill in the gaps around us, providing nearby jobs, training, shopping, service and safe, convenient, even quaint commercial neighborhoods.

Job creation and local economies take as much intentionality as does affordable housing.  Workforce development is linked to, but different from, basic education. Employers need as much support as trainees when an intern shows up on their door.  Public transportation hubs need to connect where people live AND work. If we want businesses to invest and create jobs here, basic public infrastructure must be in place, often requiring government support.

Yes, food security tops the list of issues for me.  But teaching a man to fish has to make the list as well.  Even better if he opens his own local fish market.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...