OCC Graduate Enjoys Career in State Government
From student government to state government, Michael Baker credits Olney Central College with paving the way to his success.
Baker, an Olney native, has been employed with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for the past 13 years. He currently serves as the manager of strategic planning and grants with the Office of Employment and Training.
“Being in Student Senate and organizing events like Homecoming and Spring Fling were great experiences,” said Baker, who served as OCC Student Senate president during his sophomore year. “Planning and executing those events, working on allocating limited funds, purchasing new game and stereo equipment for the union gave me the opportunity to work with other people, lots of great people, to set goals and make progress toward those goals as a team. I also had the good fortune to be a member of a presidential search committee, working with faculty and foundation members. I got exposed to working on policies and procedures. I learned a lot, made some great decisions, made some bad ones too, but that experience helped me to get to where I am today.”
After completing his associate’s degree in 1985, Baker transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he received a bachelor’s degree in secondary education. He also earned a master’s degree in public administration from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. While attending SIU, he served an internship with the Illinois State Senate and later joined the State of Illinois Comptroller’s Office as deputy director of administration and budget.
In 2001, Baker joined the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs’ Division of Program and Policy Development where he served as manager of the Office of Program Application.
His responsibilities included developing policy solutions for a number of economic development issues.
A major project Baker tackled involved identifying why the film and television industries were no longer utilizing Illinois as a production location as extensively as they had in the past. During his research, he discovered other localities were luring companies away from the state with better tax incentives.
“We weren’t able to compete,” Baker said. “We came up with an incentive package that, while modest compared to others at the time, along with the other advantages intrinsic to Illinois brought the film business back.”
Baker’s efforts resulted in both the Batman saga “The Dark Knight,” and the comedy “Legally Blonde 2”, among others, being shot in Illinois.
“Legally Blonde 2 was actually filmed in Springfield and I got to watch Reese Witherspoon deliver her lines, while they filmed Sally Field and a cast of extras sitting in the House of Representatives, which was a fun experience,” he added.
In his current position, Baker is responsible for statewide strategic planning and innovation grants for workforce development. Currently he manages an initiative partnering with the Illinois Workforce Investment Board, Illinois Community College Board and Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, local workforce investment areas and employers across Illinois to identify skills and occupations in demand and to develop accelerated training programs to meet employers’ needs.
“Manufacturers have positions they need to fill, but they aren’t able to find enough workers with the necessary skills,” he said. “We’re working to fill that skills gap by modifying existing and creating new accelerated training that is better tailored to allow people to learn the skills they need to land good-paying manufacturing jobs as quickly as possible.”
Baker is leading a team working with the state’s community colleges to develop programs and credentials that can be earned in a shorter time period and offered outside the traditional academic calendar.
“If someone loses their job, they don’t want to wait until August to start retraining,” Baker said. “They want to start right away so they can get back to work and supporting their families.”
These are challenges Baker enjoys.
“I get to work with people across the state on a higher education partnership that will benefit the state for years to come, which is exciting,” said Baker, who now resides in Rochester. “I feel like I’m part of something helpful for both the employers and the people with barriers to employment. Our team is helping people with challenges to overcome them and I feel like what I am doing is making a difference.”
Outside work, Baker enjoys helping others by serving as president of the Family Service Center Board of Directors. FSC is the longest-serving social service agency in Springfield. It opened in 1863 as the Home for the Friendless and served Union Army widows and orphans. Today it provides foster care and adoption services as well as programs for homeless and at-risk children.
Baker is grateful he chose to begin his higher education at Olney Central College.
“I really enjoyed my time at OCC. It was filled with a lot of fun and great friendships. I also met my first real-life mentor, Gail Lathrop.”
Lathrop, a former president at OCC, was the political science instructor and at the time was the mayor of Olney. At Baker’s request, Lathrop agreed to also serve as the Student Senate advisor.
“We maintained a relationship after I graduated and he gave me a lot of great advice until he passed away a few years ago.”
Baker added, “OCC was right for me. It allowed me to start a degree without going into debt, learn some important life skills and lessons, and prepared me well for U of I. It was a really good experience.”