"As director of commerce, my emphasis is how do we optimize our most valuable assets, and one of those is our workforce," said Jim Schultz, appointed earlier this year by newly elected Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, following a career in private equity.
The workforce push had already begun under Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, but Schultz told CNBC the new administration is looking to build on that, promoting the skills of Illinois workers.
"We've undermarketed ourselves," he said, noting that 56 percent of Illinois' population has more than a high school diploma. "We think the opportunity is to locate business where the best skill sets reside."
It's a sentiment echoed by members of the CNBC Global CFO Council, which includes chief financial officers from a broad array of public and private companies. Asked to rank 10 factors in deciding where to locate or expand facilities, 53 percent of the respondents ranked workforce No. 1. No other factor came close.
Even in states like Illinois, which has plenty of skilled workers, businesses complain of an imbalance between their needs and the workers' training. Schultz points to new initiatives, like a state-sponsored partnership with an automotive lighting plant. After completing an eight-week training program, the students are guaranteed a job.
"You're talking about 19- and 20-year-olds making $15 to $20 an hour," Schultz said.
The new emphasis on workforce means changes in this year's Top States for Business study, where we score all 50 states in 10 categories of competitiveness. Under our methodology, workforce will carry the most weight in this year's study, accounting for 400 of the possible 2,500 points across our 10 categories.
Tesla's Ricardo Reyes points out that there is more to a good workforce than just having lots of available people. "Our hiring standards are incredibly high," he said, adding that Tesla's diverse needs—"We're a tech company, but we're also a manufacturing company"—create particular challenges.
"We hire everything from Stanford Ph.D.s to folks that need to be on the assembly line," Reyes said.
The company's flagship factory in Fremont, California—a converted GM and Toyota plant that is less than 20 miles from Stanford University—has plenty of qualified workers of all kinds nearby. The company is convinced the new site, near Sparks, Nevada, will ultimately offer similar advantages.
"We're looking for folks at the top of the field of whatever they're doing," Reyes said.
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