The Metro East area is playing a crucial part in Ameren Illinois’ elaborate, billion-dollar plan to improve natural gas and electric service for years to come.
From a new, $6 million, 11-acre worker training facility in Belleville to the 600 hirings anticipated as part of its smart grid infrastructure plan, the utility will provide a solid boost to the region, said Richard J. Mark, president and chief executive officer.
“People are going to see a lot of growth for Ameren Illinois. This could be the catalyst for economic development in southern Illinois,” Mark said. “I think we’ll generate interest from outside businesses looking to relocate here.”
Some $42 million is being invested in Metro East upgrades in 2013, and much more is planned in coming years. Mark said every dollar the company spends is estimated to generate another $1 to $2 of benefit across central and southern Illinois.
As part of a $1 billion infrastructure modernization investment systemwide, the company is replacing and refurbishing underground distribution cables, fortifying utility poles, refurbishing high-pressured gas pipelines and installing intelligent switches and sensors that can isolate power outages and enable services to be restored faster.
Along with advanced meters, the changes aim to provide utility customers with more options to control their energy usage and hopefully save money.
Ameren Illinois’ Metro East Training Center opened in early October at 1590 East State Route 15 in Belleville. It is used to train electric and gas service workers — both new hires and existing employees — on new technologies that are part of the energy delivery and modernization plan approved by the state in 2012.
“Our linemen, for example, will be trained in a classroom setting on installation of new capacitor banks and automated switches, learning how to repair and maintain them. When they go out in the field they will be very proficient in making sure that equipment is maintained and repaired efficiently,” Mark told the Illinois Business Journal.
Most of Ameren Illinois’ 3,000-member workforce gets regular yearly training. “From Springfield down to the southern tip of the state, many of them will be coming through the Belleville training center,” he said.
Some 100 workers a week will be trained in Belleville. The company also has smaller training centers in Decatur and Peoria.
“We cover 43,700 square miles in Illinois, and we have people spread throughout 87 counties. The center in Belleville has good highway access. And there are facilities nearby, hotels, restaurants. That all was taken into consideration in locating at Belleville. Some training may take up to a week. They need places to stay and eat and get around.”
Many of those to be trained are IT workers who are developing the system that engineers and others will be tasked with building. Cross training will expose both “front and back office” personnel to each other’s work, to give everyone a team understanding of the changes.
“The more we can do that, the better the product, from a safety and efficiency standpoint. The designers who understand the challenges in the field make for a better product, help prevent injuries and a better situation overall for the people who are building this 21st century energy infrastructure,” Mark said.
Ameren Illinois has already hired some 280 of the planned 600 workers and began doing that in 2012 when it became evident the legislature was about to pass the authorizing legislation.
Not all of the new workers are permanent or full-time. Some are program developers, the IT personnel who are designing the system. Some are working under contract and will be replaced with field workers who will do the actual installation, maintenance and repair. Among the latter will be apprentice linemen, gas repairmen, substation workers and truck drivers.
Customers will see much of the work for themselves.
Despite an unemployment rate that is stubbornly stuck above 7 percent, some business owners find it tough to find and keep good employees.
One of the types of businesses that struggles with the employment problem the most is landscaping. During the season the hours are long, the work is hard and the conditions are harsh. Out of season, there’s little work to be had.
Josh Hickam is all too familiar with the labor tribulations in the landscaping business. He’s owned and operated Altered Grounds Outdoor Services, LLC in Pontoon Beach for nine years. Hickam said the first eight years were plagued by employee turnover. In fact, he said, there’s only one worker who has been with him since the beginning.
While struggling with the chaotic labor situation, he said, he happened to hire an American citizen who had immigrated from Guatemala. It was then that he discovered the H-2B visa program and a solution to his problem.
“He did a really good job for me,” Hickam said, “and he explained the whole H-2B process to me. I found myself an immigration lawyer and here we are.”
The H-2B visa program allows noncitizens to come to the United States to perform temporary or seasonal work that is nonagricultural if persons capable of performing such a service or labor cannot be found in this country. Up to 66,000 new visas are available each year in this category.
To qualify, an employer’s need must be temporary. H-2B visas are only authorized if the employer can demonstrate a temporary need, that is, less than one year, and that the need is a one-time occurrence, a seasonal need, a peak load need or an intermittent need. The employer cannot use H-2B visa labor for permanent and long-term labor needs.
And, the employee’s intent must be temporary. The nonimmigrant worker must intend to return to his or her country upon expiration of the authorized stay. In fact, the worker may be required to prove ties to his or her home country.
The attorney Hickam turned to for help was Suzanne Brown of the Law Offices of Suzanne Brown, P.C. in St. Louis. Brown is recognized as one of the foremost immigration attorneys in metro St. Louis. Brown led Hickam through the complicated, multi-stepped process involved in becoming an H-2B employer.
The first step, according to Brown, is to get the U.S. Department of Labor to make a prevailing wage determination for the type of work the employer is offering and the area of employment. Step two, said Brown, is to register and get the job posted with the Illinois Department of Employment Security, so that American citizens who are looking for jobs are aware of it. The employer also has to advertise the job opening in the newspaper. In essence, Brown said, the employer has to be able to show that it made a good faith effort to find qualified workers who are American citizens.
Once the employer has completed those steps, said Brown, they have to go back to the U.S. Department of Labor and request certification for a specific number of H-2B visa employees.
“Let’s say that somebody needs seven workers and, despite good faith recruitment efforts, they’ve only found two U.S. citizens who are willing and able to fill the job,” Brown said. “The Labor Department will certify five positions out of the seven for foreign workers. Once the Labor Department has done the certification, then the employer has to apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. And then, once the immigration service reviews the application, determines that it meets the qualifications, and approves it for visa employment, it gets sent to the U.S. Department of State. Each individual has to qualify individually for a visa,” Brown added, “meaning that they’re not otherwise excludable from the United States. They don’t have a criminal record; they haven’t committed fraud, they haven’t committed immigration violations in the past, etc.”
Obviously, getting to the point where an employer can actually hire H-2B workers is a long and arduous process. Hickam started in September in hopes of having employees by March 1.
Once the employer is approved, he can either simply take whomever is sent their way by the immigration service or they can request specific workers from the H-2B approved list. Hickam relies on his Guatemalan-American employee to help select friends and family who will be good workers.
While it’s up to the individual to get to the employment, the employer has to assist with finding safe and secure housing for them. The employee is also responsible for their travel home at the end of the season unless the employer dismisses them early.
Hickam said he’s been very happy with the workers he’s employed through the H-2B visa program and he plans to continue.
“It’s been a learning experience to say the least,” Hickam said. “There are definitely some obstacles with the language barrier and all the approvals but I’m looking forward to next year. It will run a lot smoother. I’ll have a year of experience with it and I’ll have a better idea of what to expect.”
A local tourism bureau is developing a long-range plan to draw money-bearing visitors from the region — and around the world.
“It starts with a visit,” said Ann Badasch, an Alton restaurateur who has preached tourism for decades. “When you build a place where people want to visit you’ve built a place people want to work, and when you build a place people want to work, you build a place people want to live. And when you build a place people want to live, you’ve built a place people want to visit.”
Badasch is chairman of the Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau board, which covers a 50-mile tourism corridor along the Mississippi River, from Hartford north to Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton.
That highly touted scenery is not lost on international tourism promoters who have been to Alton recently for video-recording sessions — taped in multiple languages for overseas use.
This year, for the first time, the Alton CVB’s budget has gone past $1 million. Since 2004, when Brett Stawar was named as president, the Alton CVB has managed to find new sources of funds to double its operating budget. Now the office has six full-time staff and four part-timers and is supported by a 20-member board.
And, yet, the amount of tax money taken in has changed little, Badasch said, made up for by grants, visitor guide sales, tourism services and individual contributing companies who believe it is smart business to promote tourism.
“We actually have about 50 small businesses contribute money toward the bureau’s budget. That’s telling.”
The Alton-to-Grafton area, in particular, has benefited from a push that actively began in 1985 as part of an administrative move by Gov. Jim Thompson who recognized tourism as a growth industry. That year, the State Department of Tourism was formed. The state eventually authorized a hotel-motel tax that led to creation of the state’s Local Tourism and Convention Bureau program, allowing communities to access grant money. Today, as a result there are 41 CVBs in Illinois, outside of Chicago.
Some 20 percent of the Alton CVB budget comes from a regional hotel/motel tax. Another 22 percent comes from the food and beverage tax out of Alton. In return, Alton holds five seats on the CVB board.
Another 29 percent comes from grant revenue from the state of Illinois, which collects a hotel-motel tax. Chicago is the biggest generator of that tax and retains most of what is made. The rest is distributed to other CVBs as part of the LTCB grant distribution, based on a formula of Chicago’s own tax collection on visitor expenditures areas, such as hotel/motel, food and beverage, car rental, retail and gasoline.
“I also think the important thing to point out in our budget is the diversity of funding from local, state and private sector. It is a shift we have experienced in the past 10 years and one that we will continue to pursue,” Stawar said. “Private sector collaborations are our primary focus for the future, utilizing state and local government to provide the funds to leverage the private sector and our combined tourism efforts.”
While the Alton CVB’s mission is to build public awareness on local events and places, it also has added what it calls “tourism development,” which may become a significant component.
“So many people come to us on, ‘How do we do this, and how do we do that?’ Anyone who wants services, they are given across the board freely,” Badasch said. “This is a not a membership-driven convention bureau, like some. In ours you don’t pay to play.”
As an example of such cooperation she cited the Lewis and Clark Confluence Towers at Hartford. The village spent years pursuing the facility and when it had to shift to operations and interpretation, the town turned to the CVB for support.
“The convention bureau stepped in. We set up a plan for them; they actually pay us to operate it. The village has the final say and pays the utilities, but we help them organize their schedule and their professional staff and marketing,” Badasch said.
That arrangement is done under contract with the Village of Hartford.
A similar contractual arrangement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allows the local CVB to manage river-related promotions, Stawar said.
The CVB board wants to similarly help the city of Alton, which is still learning how to promote its newly built amphitheater in Riverfront Park, said Badasch, who is on her second stint as board chairman and involved in tourism for more than 20 years.