Planning for the future

Area Career Center students prepare for high tech jobs with help from local professionals

Kevin Champlin, left, Jack Rooney and Dwayne Mentgen, not pictured, were instrumental in creating a new programming class for high school students who attend the Area Career Center at L-P. (Photo contributed)

LA SALLE - The future belongs to technology and the goal of bringing higher paying, high tech jobs to this region is being championed by three individuals well aware of that fact. Dwayne Mentgen, Kevin Champlin and Jack Rooney, combined forces last year to take a big step toward that goal with formation of a programming class at the Area Career Center.

Mentgen, director of the Area Career Center; Champlin, a local programming professional and Mendota native; and Rooney, a Hall High School graduate formerly of Cherry, who now owns an IT consulting company, spent nearly a year discussing ideas on how to develop and bring Microsoft’s “.Net,” programming classes to the area.

As former or current residents of Starved Rock Country, which Rooney defined as a region that includes Mendota to the north, Morris to the east, Minonk to the south, and Princeton to the west, they were well aware that the high paying manufacturing jobs that were plentiful from World War II through the 1990s had long ago moved out of the area. The warehouses and distribution centers that moved to the region in more recent years only offered lower paying, distribution oriented jobs, often much less lucrative than the former manufacturing positions.

With similar situations occurring across the country, they also knew that there was a strong demand nationwide for higher paying, information technology/computer jobs - including application development programming. Workers with strong skills and experiences in computer programming languages such as Microsoft’s “.Net” Java, Python and others would likely have a wide array of opportunities from which to choose.

Champlin, who now lives in LaSalle, had completed his Information Technology degree at Illinois State University in 2000. After graduation, he took a programming job in Bloomington and commuted daily for two years. Eventually, to avoid the daily commute and spend more time with his family, Champlin accepted a computer system administrator position closer to home in Oglesby. Although he was able to spend more time with his family, moving back to the area meant he could not truly utilize his Microsoft .Net application programming skills and experiences. He also was not able to earn the amount of money that he could have in larger cities such as Bloomington, Peoria, Springfield or Chicago.

Although this area has a total population of almost 180,000, Rooney explained that the demographic is unique and “loosely coupled” with no one city having a population of over 20,000. Because of this, he noted, the area does not have a Shopko or Sam’s Club and there are few, if any, firms in the area that do their own formal, larger scale application development/computer programming.

Rooney knew that local students who went away to college and completed computer science degrees would not be able to return to the area if they wanted to find a good paying job in their field. While they may have wished to move back, finding a job that met their education level would be nearly impossible. “I have seen specific situations where these programmers would like to move back home but they cannot because the jobs they have been truly trained for do not yet exist here,” Rooney emphasized.

After a year of collaboration between Mentgen, Champlin and Rooney, the Area Career Center (ACC), which is housed at L-P, was able to offer its first .Net programming class this January with 14 students enrolled. Champlin, who agreed to take time away from his website development company in Oglesby, signed on to teach the class for two hours per day, five days a week.

This semester, students are learning the basics of .Net application analysis, design and development. “I told the students that I am primarily a programmer, not a teacher, and I am going to treat you like employees,” Champlin explained. “I am really impressed with the fast start the students are off to. They are very excited, talking about how they can actually obtain a license for Microsoft visual studio so they can do programming at home.”

With the class now a reality, Mentgen said he is very pleased to have been a part of its development and also to have a quality instructor such as Champlin as its teacher. “The pre-enrollments for next year are already coming in from the feeder schools [Depue, Hall, Henry, LaMoille, L-P, Mendota, Ottawa, Princeton, Putnam County and St. Bede] and they look very good,” he noted. “We are planning on providing formal Microsoft certifications as part our efforts as we want to send a message to the students that we are very serious about what we are going to achieve here.”

For Henry High School senior Schuyler Hughes, who attends ACC, the programming class has presented new possibilities for the future. “Taking this class allowed me to realize that programming is something I really enjoy and that it is a career that I want to pursue,” Hughes said.

Josh Grygiel, a junior at L-P who also took the programming course, was surprised at how many students were in the class. “I was also surprised by the fact that I like programming so much. I definitely look forward to going to the class.”

Rooney, who has been in the IT marketing business in Springfield for over 30 years with his firm, Capitol Strategies, provides State of Illinois government and local commercial clients with expert level IT consulting. He and other partners have been working on a concept they refer to as “Starved Rock Country Programmers,” a vision in which some of the higher paying, high tech Microsoft programming jobs would be created back in his home area.

“Experienced .Net programmers are in strong demand in Springfield,” Rooney said. “I get the same impression in Peoria and Bloomington. I really think it would be great if people in SRC could get a piece of what is going on.”

Rooney’s goal is to make that a reality. “Our plan is to develop and sell our own software products, in this case for state and local government entities, as that is our primary area of experience,” he explained. “If all goes well, we would be selling and installing this software all over the country but the actual programming work would be done locally in this area. We have a couple of software products that already exist that we are looking to acquire so we can leap-frog ahead in these efforts.”

If he could wave a magic wand, Rooney said he envisions a local SRC office that employs both former residents who have moved back “home” along with a couple of young, entry level people who they are training. And with the start of the programming class at ACC this year, another step has been taken toward that goal.



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