Forget what you think you know about factories. Many of today’s production centers are clean, high-tech places to work – and these employers are thirsty for a new generation of workers.
Manufacturing’s reputation as a dark, dirty place to work is coming to an end.
A century ago, factories were notorious for the kind of grimy assembly lines described by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. Not so long ago, vocational education was considered a repository for less-capable students. Then, low-skilled jobs were sent overseas.
But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevancy. Technology changed everything. Computer-numerically controlled (CNC) machinery now enables greater efficiency and precision in the way things are made. Nearly every industrial application has been affected in some way.
Many of today’s manufacturing jobs have moved beyond low-skilled positions and on-the-job-training. Rather, American workers are expected to understand technology, math, programming and many other high-tech skills.
“The things that were easy to do, a lot of those have gone overseas,” says Chris Sikora, instructional coordinator for Elgin Community College (ECC) manufacturing programs. “What we focus on in the U.S. are the things that are really hard to do. If you go to Bison Gear & Engineering or Camcraft, these are super high-precision jobs, where you’re using electron microscopes to see the surface of a finished part.”
In the economic recovery equation, the manufacturing sector plays an essential role. Manufacturing accounts for nearly 10 percent of all jobs across Illinois, and about 8 percent in greater Chicagoland. It’s true that more Chicagoland jobs are related to service, government and transportation than elsewhere in the state, but dig a little deeper, and you’ll find pockets of intense manufacturing activity, especially in the northwest suburbs.
About 12.6 percent of all workers in McHenry County are engaged in manufacturing – just slightly more than are employed in retail or government. Along the Interstate 90 corridor, from Elgin through Schaumburg, the so-called Golden Corridor is home to international producers Siemens, Wanxiang, DMG Mori and Sandvik Coromant, among others.
Demand for talented workers hasn’t been this high in a long time. But finding workers with the necessary skills is easier said than done. Surprisingly, at least 67 percent of American manufacturers are experiencing a moderate to severe talent shortage, according to a 2011 joint study by Deloitte Consulting and the Manufacturing Institute.
The problem isn’t just a lack of technical skills in today’s jobs market. Employers also are concerned about replacing their aging workforce.
“The thing that I keep saying over and over is that manufacturers face a triple threat,” says Jim Falco, executive dean of education, career and technical education at McHenry County College (MCC). “You have an aging workforce, you have no one in the pipeline to replace them, and the unemployed or underemployed don’t have the skill sets to step into these types of jobs. We reached out to the manufacturers and asked, ‘How can MCC help you to solve this problem?’”
The answer: Manufacturers and community colleges are positioning themselves as a conduit for engaging a new generation.
Taking the Initiative
Harper College’s coverage area along the I-90 corridor is a hotbed of manufacturing. Serving more than a half-million residents from Fox River Grove through Des Plaines and Roselle, this community college has been one of the key players in the Golden Corridor Manufacturing Partnership, a public/private group that’s promoting local industry. Education, both for students and their parents, is an important first step, says Mary Beth Ottinger, Harper’s dean of career and technical programs.
“Not all parents, but some parents, say, ‘My kids are going to college, they’re not working in a factory,’” she says. “Well, Harper is a college. Besides, your child can’t just walk into a job with a high school diploma.”
Recognizing a need to better prepare the local workforce, Harper College and a consortium of 20 Illinois community colleges obtained a federal grant to do just that. The Department of Labor grant, awarded in 2012, brought nearly $12.94 million to the consortium, which included schools in Elgin as well as McHenry, DuPage and Lake Counties. Each school has used its share of the funds to address specific local needs.
For Harper, the first move was a complete revamp of its manufacturing curriculum, which streamlined the process for obtaining certificates and degrees. Students now begin with introductory courses in manufacturing, measurement and related math.
Then, they’re sent off-campus to complete a 100-hour internship at a local manufacturer. This isn’t a fetching coffee or a watch-me-work deal – these students are placed in actual positions and expected to employ their newfound skills, while earning a wage.
“We want to work with the students – we want them to understand manufacturing and see it from the inside, and make an informed decision on what they want to do after school,” says Ottinger. “If they get a part-time job out of it, which many have, they can come back to school and work part-time while they finish. Many students, after they earn their degree, are hired full-time.”
During their final two semesters, students return to campus and study their specializations, whether automation, machining, fabrication or logistics.
To further support the new curriculum, Harper’s career center was recently transformed into the Job Placement Resource Center, which is now an actively engaged component of every student’s education. Now, manufacturing students are taught how to prepare a resume and how to succeed in a job interview, before they ever apply for an internship. Career center staff members constantly build new relationships with area employers.
One of the most visible transformations involves a $38 million renovation of Harper’s Career and Technical Education Center, a project that’s tripled the space for manual machines, welding and fabrication. Partially paid for with state funds, the new center opens this January.
Future students are getting a head start on their education with dual-credit courses at five sending high schools. These course credits will move with the students, whether they attend Harper or a four-year institution.
“We want to make a seamless transition from high school, to us, to employers,” says Ottinger. “The high schools are counting on us to help them create these courses, so the students can have a head start. When they leave high school, it’s our hope they could have 15 college credits when they get here. That’s a full semester, and if they’re earning it in high school, it’s a minimal cost.”
But how do you engage high schoolers? Reach them at an earlier age, says Ottinger. That’s why Harper sponsors field trips for area youngsters.
“We celebrated Manufacturing Day here in October, and we had about 100 people come through,” says Ottinger. “We did a presentation in the morning, we showed them our labs, fed them lunch and then sent these students to a manufacturing plant, where they could see the real thing. We heard back from school counselors who said students were so wowed because they didn’t know anybody who’d ever worked in the field, and had never been inside a manufacturing plant. It makes a huge difference.”
Entry-Level Knowledge and Advanced Programming
Jacob Clark simply knew there were jobs to be had. Laid off from a carpentry job during the recession, Clark was eager to start a new career.
“I knew numbers and I wanted to work with my hands,” says the Wonder Lake resident. “So, I started researching jobs in McHenry County that I didn’t qualify for. I’d go to Monster.com and see what came up, and I saw a lot of manufacturing companies looking for two or three years’ experience with a CAD designer or CNC operator. Obviously, there was a lot of opportunity.”
Sight unseen, he enrolled in McHenry County College’s (MCC) manufacturing program, and he’s never looked back. About a year into his night classes, Clark landed a part-time job at Coilcraft in Cary, where he daily practices what he learns.
“I was shocked by how much school overlaps with my work,” he says. “The software we use is the same at MCC. The machining equipment is the exact same equipment I learned on.”
It’s no coincidence. MCC has long maintained close relationships with local manufacturers, and like many community colleges, it maintains regular meetings with a steering team of actual employers. A few years ago, dean Falco and the steering team recognized an unfulfilled need among area manufacturers. With the $489,000 that MCC received from the federal grant with Harper, the school quickly enhanced its curriculum and built a new machining lab.
“Our biggest evolution was to introduce entry-level training – that’s been huge,” says Falco. “Manufacturers have been telling us they’re doing on-the-job training, but it cuts into efficiency. When quality individuals who could be running machines are training new employees instead, it slows down production.”
The college had long supported an associate degree in manufacturing management, aimed at mid-career workers. In 2012, MCC expanded its scope by launching the CNC Manufacturing Fast Track certificate. Now, students can earn certificates or degrees in engineering technology, advanced manufacturing and CNC programming.
“We’re committed to training people so they can acquire the skills and aptitude they need, which is a service to the community,” says Falco.
MCC’s new equipment, computers and software allow students to first learn programming and drafting. Once in the lab, they’ll master manual lathes and drill presses before programming the high-tech CNC lathes and turning mills.
Standing inside the lab, Falco holds up a piece of aluminum carved out by a student. “We start with something like this aluminum stock tube, and then, over the course of 16 weeks, we make it look like this,” he says, holding up the final example. “So, they have to make beveled edges, cambers and threads. If they can turn this stock into a machined part, they can successfully use these machines.”
Other MCC departments are lending their own expertise. For one, the school’s 3-D scanner, laser cutter engraver and six new 3-D printers are moving students into very high-tech, next-generation digital manufacturing.
And then, there’s the new robotics laboratory, also funded by the grant. Here, students are learning the latest advancements in programmable logic controls (PLCs), the very commands that make robots work. The students first learn to program small vehicles made from Lego Mindstorms toys. Afterward, they’ll program more complex machines, such as drones and tabletop robots.
“If you were to go into Chrysler today, they have Staubli and Mitsubishi robots, just like ours, but larger,” says Falco. “If you can program a tabletop one, you can program the big ones, because they’re the same thing.”
MCC actively promotes “stackable degrees,” the type that build on each other from dual credit in high school through certificates, an associate degree and, eventually, a four-year degree. However far they go in school, students work toward additional National Institute for Metal Working Skills (NIMS) certification, a quality designation that provides a competitive edge in the job market.
While many manufacturing students are fresh out of high school, many more are 20- and 30-somethings switching careers, just like 30-year-old Clark. He sees himself eventually moving off the production floor and into the engineering and design lab of his current employer.
“My goal is to be an engineer,” he says. “I’m not a management type of person, but I see myself as an engineer who comes in, knows what he’s doing and does a great job. That’s what I’d like to move up to someday.”
Blending Old & New
When ECC’s Sikora, a manufacturing instructor, talks about the industrial arts, he’s serious about the artisan quality of manufacturing. He sees no reason to think that craftsmanship and computerized equipment can’t go hand-in-hand.
“Elgin has always had one of the strongest manual programs,” says Sikora. “It goes along with what they do in Germany, where they’re very into the trades. For example, one of the first things they do is give you a block of steel, and you have to file it perfectly square. That’s just showing you the patience and precision of working with your hands.”
Old-school manufacturing techniques are the starting point in the ECC machine shop, where students first learn on ancient drill presses and manual lathes. Then, they move to CNC tools.
The program is fairly broad-based, encompassing simple tooling or CNC jobs, as well as more complex computer-aided design (CAD) and engineering. Students also are exposed to welding, maintenance technology and 3-D printing.
“We also added something that I think is unique to this area: computer-aided engineering,” says Sikora. “We know we can design the part and we can build it, but why don’t we simulate it on the computer beforehand? We learn to do drop tests in the computer, plug in the materials and the distance, and the simulation will show you impact results.”
Really, Sikora likes to tell others that his program is more about computer-integrated manufacturing, or CIM, a term that makes a stronger connection with skeptics.
“It’s computer-based now, more than ever before, and essentially that helps to seal the deal,” says Sikora. “When you talk to a parent and you tell them it’s computer-integrated manufacturing, it sounds much different from industrial work, or what used to be called industrial arts.”
Even better, ECC’s degree programs already align with curriculum at the Illinois Institute of Technology and Northern Illinois University. Thus, someone could move from a dual-credit course in an Elgin-area high school through an associate to a four-year degree. It worked well for one recent alumnus.
“He finished up his associate degree, he’s finishing up his bachelor’s, and is looking at a master’s in manufacturing,” says Sikora, who himself holds a master’s in manufacturing. “Some of his work is with wheels that you might see in a hot rod magazine. That’s what I use to encourage these students. When you say it’s just manufacturing, you could be talking about making a plain old stapler. But, if you have an interest in cars or things we’re working on, and you’re making parts of cars, you can see them, and you can say, ‘Hey, I designed that wheel.’”
Wherever they go after ECC, students might soon take with them additional accreditations, such as the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council’s credentials in shop safety. The curriculum change is still in the works.
“It’s great if we can work this into our curriculum, because not only do these students get a certificate from the college, but they get a nationally recognized certificate,” says Sikora, a certified trainer. “So, if a company like Bison Gear & Engineering sees it, they say, ‘Wow, they already have this.’”
Paul Rodriguez never expected to end up in manufacturing, but it fittingly combines his childhood passions. As a youngster, he wanted to program video games, but discovered he wasn’t much of an artist, and he didn’t enjoy sitting at a computer all day. So, Rodriguez spent 12 years in the military, serving multiple combat tours, before returning home to Carol Stream. Finding the right job was tough.
“I got a job, but I didn’t like the way it was going,” he says. “I got another job and they laid me off, then I got another job and they laid me off, too. I was like, ‘I need to get something more, so I can be an asset.’ I’ve been going back to school since.”
Rodriguez looks forward to combining his passions with a degree in CAD, when he finishes school in late 2015. “Here, I’m into computers and drawing, but it’s not like video games – it’s something similar,” he says. “I guess this is my destiny.”
Sikora is always looking to the future, trying to divine what innovations his students need to know. Currently, he’s eyeing nanotechnology, which is enabling the production of super-durable man-made materials. At a recent meeting with area manufacturers, some expressed an interest, albeit down the road.
“It’s new, emerging technology,” says Sikora. “I want to be on the forefront. Just like in the 1960s, if someone had asked, ‘Does a community college need a computer?’ We would have needed to ask if anyone’s using them yet, and whether there were any jobs here. With nanotechnology right now, there are very few jobs, but computers changed everything. We should be looking ahead.”
A World of High Skills
Inside the MCC robotics lab, advanced students are employing technologies similar to those used in the latest Mars rover and working to master them.
“When the rover landed in August two years ago, it was lowered to the Martian surface on a platform, and the robot dropped down,” explains Falco. “So, here we have students simulating that with fishing line and a platform. They have to think about how you keep the platform stable using a gyroscope, and how does it stay stable?”
These students may never work for NASA, but what if their future employers do? This is high-tech stuff, and it’s happening right here at home, inside facilities based right in our region.
“The people who do this high-tech manufacturing and operate these machines have a very high skill level,” says Falco. “While you don’t learn this in one afternoon, you can learn in a relatively short time, with big payoffs.”