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A new energy fuels city-county job training

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (left) KarNorington-Reaves (pictured April 2011).  |  John H. White~Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (left) and Karin Norington-Reaves (pictured in April 2011). | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 10, 2012 6:16AM

The city and county on Monday will announce the Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership, a brand-new nonprofit agency birthed from a massive overhaul of the region’s federally funded employment training, placement and job retention programs.

Not another mind-numbing bureaucracy, you say? Before your eyes glaze over, its new leader wants to tell us why we should care.

Employment is “the absolute cornerstone of economic development, because without it, there is no engine that is running communities,” said Karin Norington-Reaves, the new partnership’s CEO.

On a recent steamy afternoon, she previewed what’s in store, practically jumping out of her seat. “My people are excited, fired up, ready to go,” she declared. “They are ready to make some change.”

She pledges to consolidate and innovate jobs programs in dire times. Times like those told in Friday’s employment report, which showed the nation created a measly 80,000 jobs in June. The national unemployment rate is stuck at a dismal 8.2 percent.

In the Chicago area, 22.6 percent of African Americans were unemployed in 2011, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute, a bipartisan think tank.

Last year, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle teamed up to find ways to reduce and reform government. A top-down review found different agencies were running employment programs. It was redundancy gone wild: Three different offices, staffs, copy machines, phone systems and governing boards. No one was coordinating the region’s efforts to match the right jobs with the right employers.

Now, it’s all under one roof.

“So our focus is on ensuring not only that we are efficient in the way that we are spending the dollars, but also emphasizing placement above all because that is the only way we make a dent in the unemployment rate,” Norington-Reaves said.

Out of the box, the merger already has saved $2.2 million, reduced staff positions from 90 to 60, and captured a $3 million federal work-force innovation grant, she added. She will report to Preckwinkle, Emanuel and a 28-member board that includes civic and business pros such as co-chairs Larry J. Goodman, CEO of Rush University Medical Center, and Frank Clark, the recently retired ComEd CEO and chairman.

“Training for training’s sake does not make a dent in the unemployment rate,” Norington-Reaves argued. “We have got to train for the jobs that are in demand so that we’re bridging that gap.”

There’s plenty to bridge right in the bureau­cracy’s backyard.

At the county’s criminal courthouse at 26th and California, some staff are still using carbon paper to process paperwork, I’m told.

People are pushing carts loaded with paper in duplicate and triplicate.

“We have people who don’t know how to use computers that we could have been putting through a training program so that they could avoid being laid off,” Norington-Reaves said.

Another thing she’s excited about: After our meeting, she was headed to her first tae kwon do class. The martial arts sound like great preparation for mastering bureaucracy.

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