NORMAL — Collaboration between business and education is critical if the country is to address its ongoing struggle with unemployment, Ed Rust Jr., chairman and CEO of State Farm Insurance Cos., said Friday at the McLean County Chamber of Commerce’s Twin Cities Showcase.
And while he discussed State Farm’s planned expansions in Atlanta, Ga., Phoenix and Dallas, Rust declined to elaborate on whether the company’s decision to lease or build large office buildings in those areas could affect employment at State Farm’s Bloomington headquarters, the county’s largest employer.
He stressed that the developments aim to keep State Farm competitive, and that the company will remain in Bloomington, where it employs about 15,000 people.
“Bloomington has been the home of State Farm for 91 years,” said Rust during his speech at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Normal. “It will continue to be.”
Rust, also current chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said businesses need to work with educators in training the next generation of employees. Part of the reason the national unemployment is still at 7.6 percent despite job openings is a lack of potential employees with the right schooling and skills, he said.
“Education, and how we adapt and change, … from a business standpoint is critical,” Rust said.
Peter Rankaitis, executive director of the nonprofit Project Oz in Bloomington, said Rust had good insights in his speech, including his responses to questions about such topics as charter schools. Rust said the goal should be all schools, public or charter, performing at top levels.
“Some of his comments about education, I think, are correct,” Rankaitis said.
There are also reasons to be optimistic about the economy moving forward, he said. The housing market is showing signs of growth due to low interest rates and energy prices remain relatively stable. But the economic climate is not yet good enough to increase hiring, he said.
“While employment is up, you have to look at (those who are) underemployed or those who have withdrawn from the job market, and those remain very troublesome,” Rust said.
Rust said government should encourage global trade and re-examine rules that slow down small businesses.
“Regulations are needed to give you rules of the road … but regulations that have outlived their usefulness should be eliminated, contemporized,” Rust said.
In remarks following his keynote address, Rust declined to comment on whether State Farm will appeal a federal jury’s April ruling charging the company with defrauding the National Flood Insurance Program in the case of a home damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the Mississippi case, former State Farm employees testified they were instructed to modify damage reports to avoid payouts.
The court ordered State Farm to reimburse the NFIP $250,000 in that case, which could set a precedent for similar suits.