The No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives spent part of Monday morning in Peoria.
Instead of talking much about recent tumult in Washington, D.C., Steny Hoyer said he was in town to listen.
Hoyer and a fellow Democratic traveler, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta of California, joined 17th District Rep. Cheri Bustos at a business and education roundtable at the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce.
The stop was one of several Hoyer and Panetta made across the country the past few days. Las Vegas and Kansas City, Mo., were among others.
In those places and in Peoria, the congressmen were gathering information to help develop polices they say will lead to better jobs and wages, even for those without a college education. It’s part of “Make It In America,” a multi-year, House Democratic-sponsored initiative.
“Revitalizing jobs and manufacturing, but not just limited to traditional manufacturing — a chair or a cup or whatever,” Hoyer, the House Democratic Whip from Maryland, said before the rountable began. “It’s zeroes and 1’s as well. Technology.
“How do we energize the startup of businesses, the expansion of businesses, the training of people with the technology needed for 21st-century jobs? That’s what this is all about.”
Bustos, a Moline Democrat who represents about half of Peoria, and the two congressional visitors heard from eight local business people and educators.
Among other things, they told the legislators about the value of affordable higher education and the need to establish among younger students a college mind-set without delay.
Higher-ed internet connectivity with schools in smaller communities also is key, according to Beth Derry, the Peoria County regional superintendent of education. She cited the Elmwood district and the Glasford-based Illini Bluffs district.
“Their kids can’t hop in the car and drive to Illinois Central College to take college algebra and all of those courses,” Derry said. “How do we get those courses to them?”
But some business owners suggested higher education might be overemphasized, although they respect what colleges and universities do.
“I do not think every kid belongs in college, because there is a place for welders,” said Margaret Hanley, president of A. Lucas & Sons, a Peoria steel fabricator. “Nobody’s going into any office building without the skilled trades. They’d never be built.”
Bob Beecham, president and CEO of Keystone Steel & Wire Co. in Bartonville, said his firm has a difficult time attracting craft people, electrical and mechanical.
Rich Kriegsman, president of KMI Packaging and Exporting in Pekin, lamented a shortage of truck drivers and an abundance of potential or former employees who couldn’t pass a drug test.
“I don’t know where we got away from teaching life skills, but we need to get back to it,” Hanley said.
When Hoyer and Panetta return to Washington, it appears they’ll have considerable material with which to work. Hoyer cited the Midwest as a part of the country that deserved special emphasis, because the coasts were doing well economically.
“This is an opportunity for me to get out of the bubble in California,” said Panetta, the son of Leon Panetta, a former congressman, Secretary of Defense and White House chief of staff. “Not just to see our differences, but our similarities, and to see what areas we can work together on.”