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NIU’s EdSystems and P-20 Center help to develop essential employability skills in Peoria

November 4, 2020

While technical skills can be learned on the job, certain individual traits and interpersonal skills are essential for career growth. Teamwork, communication, accountability, critical thinking and problem-solving are a few of the 10 essential employability competencies identified by the state of Illinois in the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act. But how can these competencies be taught, measured and certified in a way that is meaningful for individuals and employers?

That’s the challenge NIU’s Education Systems Center (EdSystems) faced along with community partners in the Peoria area. Their answer came in the form of GPEAK – the Greater Peoria Essential Abilities and Knowledge system, which is being piloted this fall and released more widely in early 2021.

GPEAK is a partnership between Illinois Central College, Peoria’s CEO Council and Regional Workforce Development Alliance, the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB), Jobs for the Future and EdSystems. These groups came together with the goal of translating the state’s 10 competencies into a practical system to prepare individuals for meaningful and fulfilling careers. The system evolved into a free and open online platform available to students, education systems, community-based agencies and employers in the region that provides certification to individuals who have demonstrated mastery of an essential workforce skill.

The GPEAK kick-off event in November 2019 brought together employers, educators and community partners from the Greater Peoria area.

According to EdSystems Policy and Program Manager Heather Penczak, the first step in the process was to bring more than 85 community members from diverse employers and organizations to the table to establish a common language and shared understanding. Over a five-month period, EdSystems planned and facilitated a series of meetings to discuss the competencies, create detailed descriptions and determine how to test when those competencies had been achieved.

“There were already so many good things happening in the Peoria region, and many different organizations were providing employment training,” says Penczak. “But some of them were providing essential skills training and others were focused primarily on technical skills, and they took many different approaches. So the initial part of this project was really just aligning our understanding of the essential skills – getting everybody to speak the same language.”

The next step was to develop a curriculum to teach and evaluate each of the competencies. For this curriculum to work, it had to be applicable for high school and community college students as well as early and mid-career employees. And it needed to be something that could be used by individuals on their own, in the high school or community college classroom, and by employers to train interns or employees.

“One of the trickiest parts of developing the curricular resources was that there wasn’t exactly one setting where they would be used, and there wasn’t just one targeted learner,” says Kristin Brynteson, director of professional development for the NIU Center for P-20 Engagement, which was tapped to design the curricular resources.

Brynteson and her team aimed to create a curriculum that would be universal enough to apply to youth through adult learners, yet also targeted enough to encourage self-reflection and growth in the essential competencies. One of the ways they did this was to tailor the resources to fit specific industries that are represented in the Peoria region, including IT, manufacturing, logistics and law enforcement.

“The first thing we did when we wrote the case studies was to ask, ‘What are some of the industries that we want to make sure are represented?’” Brynteson says. “For example, in the decision-making curriculum, there’s a case study around the logistics industry and supply chain, so it’s really about making some of these crucial decisions that could mean an organization either gets their supplies or doesn’t,” she says.

The real-world case studies are paired with pop culture references to stimulate fun and meaningful conversations. “For the decision-making curriculum, for example, we refer to a point in ‘Star Wars: Return of the Jedi’ where Darth Vader makes a very crucial decision,” Brynteson says. “Participants analyze that with some guiding questions: What were the intended outcomes? What decision did he make? What were the pros and cons of that decision?”

All of these resources work together to encourage self-reflection for individuals, or small or large groups.

“For the individual, there’s a self-inventory,” Brynteson says, “because self-awareness is one of the biggest issues. You may think you’re a good team player, but are you really? So, at the individual level, the lessons involve self-reflection, taking an inventory and then using the results to go through an independent guided journal around that competency. These can then be used as the basis for group discussions or for one-on-one guidance from a teacher or industry mentor.”

Penczak emphasizes that the conversations sparked by the curricular resources and assessments are where much of the learning takes place.

“As part of the GPEAK training experience, the individual and their mentor or teacher each complete an assessment of the individual’s skills. There should be a conversation before and after the assessment. If, after the assessment, you find that you’re mismatched on a few things, then that should be a conversation starter to say, from the mentor side, here is some advice and support for you, and from the participant side,  how can I improve and develop certain skills? This should never be something where people fill it out and everyone moves on. If there isn’t the conversation, then you’ve lost the value of it and are not utilizing the GPEAK system to its full potential.”

Because employer participation is so important, Penczak is grateful that the team was able to build GPEAK onto the already existing Illinois workNet platform. “This platform is already familiar to many of the organizations and is very simple and user-friendly on the mentor/employer side,” she says. “For the individual, the platform provides a full dashboard with a wealth of resources as well as virtual badges to demonstrate their achievements.”

Colleagues at EdSystems and the P-20 Center (which houses both NIU STEAM and the Illinois P-20 Network) are proud of their collaboration to serve the Peoria community and – they hope – to create a model for other communities to emulate.

Jon Furr, EdSystems executive director, says, “One of the things that makes EdSystems’ policy work unique is our focus on intentionally implementing state-level policy on the community level. This helps us make sure that the policies are implemented successfully across the state while helping us identify needs and opportunities to address in future policy design.”

Amy Jo Clemens, director of NIU’s Center for P20 Engagement, says, “It’s exciting to me how NIU STEAM and the Illinois P-20 Network worked hand-in-hand with EdSystems for the GPEAK project. Whereas EdSystems serves as a bridge for state-level policy to the community, we like to focus on innovation and implementation in the local educational system, often bridging across K-12 and higher ed institutions. That’s what’s really nice about the collaboration between EdSystems and P-20. We’re all addressing similar issues and problems; we’re just addressing them with different expertise and supports, bringing everyone together to have a greater local impact.”

Education Systems Center (EdSystems) is a mission-driven policy development and program implementation center based within Northern Illinois University’s Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development. Learn more at

The NIU Center for P-20 Engagement includes NIU STEAM and the Illinois P-20 Network, which promote collaboration between educational entities and community partners to improve education and bring innovation to schools, community colleges, workplaces and other community settings. Learn more at