Pictured: Mike Geist, technology education teacher at Wheeling High School, demonstrates how to program the computer-numerical control machine in the school’s manufacturing laboratory, as students Jose Cruz, George Alvarez and Roberto Anaya observe. (Dustin Waller photo)

I-90 Golden Corridor Partnership: Today’s Manufacturing is High-Tech, Not Dumb and Dirty

Manufacturing has come a long way from the dark, dirty factories of yesterday. Meet the educators, businesses and civic leaders who are promoting today’s high-tech, high-skilled manufacturing companies along the I-90 corridor.

Pictured: Mike Geist, technology education teacher at Wheeling High School, demonstrates how to program the computer-numerical control machine in the school’s manufacturing laboratory, as students Jose Cruz, George Alvarez and Roberto Anaya observe. (Dustin Waller photo)

“How many of you think a factory looks like this?” John Pusatera asks the class, pointing to a photo of a crowded, dirty factory floor from the early 1900s. “Manufacturing isn’t like that anymore. A lot of the work is done by machines today.”

As a training specialist for toolmaker Sandvik Coromant, Schaumburg, Pusatera usually shares his presentation with college students and company employees. But today he’s convincing a class at Wheeling High School that manufacturing offers viable career choices. These students have already glimpsed today’s high-tech manufacturing scene, learning engineering and milling skills on powerful, computer numerical controlled machinery, the same equipment used by professional engineers and machine operators. Their experiences with manufacturing barely resemble those of their parents and grandparents.

This fact doesn’t escape Gary Skoog. As director of economic development for Hoffman Estates, just a few miles from Wheeling, Skoog believes modern manufacturing is essential to the health of his community of about 52,000 people. But he also knows that most people today undervalue its importance.

“We need to change the perception of manufacturing,” he says. “Manufacturing in my father’s world was dumb, dark and dirty. If you couldn’t do anything else, you went into manufacturing, and you stood next to a lathe all day. It was dirty, grimy and hot. That’s not the case at all these days, with computer-controlled machinery.”

Local manufacturers tell Skoog that it’s tough, even in this employers’ economy, to recruit the highly-skilled engineers, machinists and technicians they need to program and operate computer-controlled tools. Skoog sees modern manufacturers as a generator for strong wages, an educated workforce and foreign investment; he wants to keep them in town.

Skoog is gathering together leaders from cities, businesses and schools located around Interstate 90, between Elgin and Schaumburg. He’s initiating a conversation about how to preserve and bolster the economic vitality in this area, known for decades as the “Golden Corridor.”

Today’s assembly lines are controlled by fast-paced, high-tech machinery, such as this demonstration at FANUC Robotics, Hoffman Estates. (Chris Linden photo)

“Right now, it’s like these companies are in silos, just doing their own thing,” he says. “Maybe they’re buying widgets from Italy, and the guy a mile down the street sells widgets. If they’d order from him, they wouldn’t have to ship those widgets and they’d have them on demand. Unless they start talking to each other, they’ll never know that. They’ll never solve common problems until they get together and talk to each other.”

Golden Opportunities

The 26-mile Golden Corridor links numerous transportation routes throughout Chicagoland, providing easy access to dozens of communities. An estimated 140,000 vehicles pass by Hoffman Estates each day.

Economic clusters such as health and education, professional services, government, retail and manufacturing thrive here, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, a six-county planning and statistical agency. Giants such as Sears, Motorola and Fisher Nuts are based here.

But Skoog’s I-90 Golden Corridor partnership is focused solely on advanced manufacturing, which is Chicagoland’s No. 4 employment cluster, behind government, health care and retail, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

Advanced manufacturing is the third highest-paying industrial sector in the local economy. In 2008, advanced manufacturing employees in Chicagoland earned nearly $38 billion, according to the BEA. Comparatively, employees in professional services earned $43 billion, while employees in government enterprise – think public utilities – earned $40 billion.

Although the recession hit everyone hard, manufacturing employment and production have risen to their highest levels since 2005 and 2004, respectively, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s Chicago index. And these aren’t the low-tech, low-skill assembly jobs of past generations. Rather, they’re high-tech, high-skilled precision occupations in which computer-controlled machinery is king.

While good pay and ample opportunity are enough reason to focus on manufacturing, there’s also a trickle-down effect that impacts an area’s entire economy.

“You have people who know how to run businesses, who know how business works, and they are high-level manufacturers, at that,” says Michael O’Kelley, vice president of economic development for the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce. “That’s important, because this is where you make the dollars, the real wealth contribution, for a city. Economically, retail and small assembly jobs don’t bring as much to a city.”

With a focus on locally-based manufacturers, O’Kelley, Skoog and Matt Frank, economic development coordinator for the Village of Schaumburg, have been gathering business leaders and educators into brainstorming sessions during the past year. They discuss common problems and potential solutions, and call themselves the Golden Corridor Manufacturing Group.

“One thing we talked about was a growing lack of younger people, high school graduates, pursing technical degrees for the manufacturing base,” says Brian Rhoades, director of sales for FANUC Robotics, Hoffman Estates. “If we want to keep manufacturing, then we have to make sure we have people pursuing those careers – those educations – in order to have people who are prepared to support it.”

Nothing is manufactured here at FANUC’s Midwestern headquarters. Rather, its engineers outfit and program robots to perform various assembly-line jobs for FANUC customers, and its technicians repair and improve the robots.

Like many corridor partners, FANUC needs employees who are interested in a highly technical field, who have strong math and engineering skills. Finding them can be challenging.

Chris Kaiser is similarly worried about accessing a qualified workforce to support his precision toolmaking company, BIG Kaiser, in Hoffman Estates. Kaiser needs more than just toolmakers; he also needs people who can design, build, repair and sell things. All of that requires interest and experience.

“The problem is that, in our industry, we’re losing the generation that has gone from years of on-the-job training, to retirement,” says Kaiser. “So, in the next five to 10 years, the Baby Boomers are retiring, and a whole block of people that had experience is leaving. We have to find replacements for them.”

Like Kaiser, Richard Gilchrist, president of Felsomat, in Schaumburg, wants to engage younger workers. But he often finds they’re not interested in manufacturing; they perceive it as dull and grimy work.

“I think a lot of parents look at manufacturing as a dirty job, like working in a coal mine,” says Gilchrist. “One of the things we’re trying to do at Felsomat and BIG Kaiser is to start the process of changing perceptions. Our companies have clean, bright atmospheres and offer rewarding jobs. You’re working with computers. You’re programming. It’s a high-tech business, and we need engineers to design and build machine tools and automation that our customers require for making everything from cars and trucks to appliances and even airplanes. I hope the kids and their parents can look at us and see what an opportunity we offer.”

DMG/Mori Seiki USA, like FANUC, doesn’t produce anything at its North American headquarters in Hoffman Estates. But Rod Jones, chief learning officer, spends most of his time interacting with customers, who send employees here to learn to operate his company’s machine products. He knows that if today’s high school and college students don’t get interested in manufacturing, it could spell trouble for his machine tool-building business tomorrow.

“We have a hard time selling our machinery, because people can’t find anybody with the skills to run it,” says Jones. He wants to change the perception among parents, students and guidance counselors who don’t see manufacturing as a viable career option.

“We find that a lot of these kids are actually math whizzes,” says Jones. “But when it comes to calculus or geometry in school, the math doesn’t relate to anything real-world, so it isn’t engaging. Saying I’m not good at math skills may be true, in the textbook sense, but it’s not necessarily the case in the workplace.”

Skoog takes manufacturers’ comments to heart. “Every single partner basically said that we’re facing a train wreck down the road. They’re having trouble finding qualified workers here. So as leaders from municipalities, we’re asking ourselves, ‘What are some things we can do to help in that process?’”

Generating Solutions

For the past year or so, the corridor group has focused on ways partners can help each other and “get along in the sandbox” for the greater good of the regional workforce, says Skoog.

“Too often, we’re very competitive, and some communities try to steal a business from the next community,” he says. “That’s more counterproductive than it is productive. Working together has long-term benefits and returns.”

Golden Corridor business partners like FANUC are discovering the value of networking with each other.

“For us, it’s getting companies more familiar with who we are and what we can do for them,” says Rhoades. “If we can bring in more businesses that use robotics, then that’s good for us. In our meetings so far, we’ve gotten to know some businesses in the area. A lot of the machine tool builders use FANUC machine tools and motors, so they’re already customers.”

In November 2010, nearly 40 families visited a high school Golden Corridor career fair hosted at FANUC. They heard from manufacturers and young engineers, who talked about how the field has changed. They also saw FANUC robots up close and met business leaders whose companies rely on high-tech equipment. Another career event is scheduled for March.

It’s likely that such events will increase, as corridor businesses and municipalities turn to their partners in education.

The More You Know

A wide variety of technical skills are needed on today’s shop floors, and math and science proficiencies are a must, not only for engineers, but also machine operators.

Matt McElhone considers himself a lifelong gearhead. As a kid, he enjoyed tinkering with machines; that interest continued as he learned about blueprints and mechanics while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.

McElhone is now a FANUC technician, a robot mechanic who modifies robots and collaborates with engineers on assembly-line functions. He’s constantly expanding his skills through engineering classes at Harper College, Palatine.

“Harper offers classes in engineering and mechanics – the things I work with on a daily basis,” says McElhone. “In a class, I learn something, and then I go to work and say, ‘Hey, can I try that?’”

As McElhone’s skill set expands, so does his opportunity to climb the company ladder. He’s discovering what many employers promise: The more you know, the faster you can grow.

Getting started is the challenge, but community colleges reach nearly everyone, from teenagers to professionals like McElhone. For residents in the Golden Corridor, options include Harper College, which has a presence in 23 suburban communities, including Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates; and Elgin Community College (ECC), which serves Kane County, Streamwood and southeastern McHenry County.

Harper College is preparing major renovations to its labs, and its administrators are learning from industry partners how to better prepare students of all ages.

“I think we’re learning to listen more, and to pay attention to what our employers need,” says Maria Coons, executive director of professional and continuing education for Harper College. “It’s not that we weren’t listening before, but we’re listening more intently now.”

Susan Van Weelden is listening, too. As director of community engagement and economic development for ECC, she spends a lot of time networking with business partners. Like Coons, she knows that her students face a very technical, math-heavy environment. Adjusting school curricula to better accommodate manufacturers’ real-world needs is essential.

“The more well-trained students we turn out, the more easily our local businesses can hire workers, and the more our community stands to gain,” says Van Weelden. “Even with this high unemployment, we’re hearing from manufacturing firms that they’re having trouble finding employees with the right skills.”

Meanwhile, at McHenry County College (MCC), which technically lies outside the Golden Corridor, educators have a history of partnering with business leaders. In what’s dubbed the “Lean Breakfast Club,” local manufacturers and the school’s training center staff swap ideas about skills and equipment in their industries. A similar group guides the school’s for-credit curriculum. They’ve been meeting since 1991, and the wisdom of this grows ever more apparent.

“I think, more and more, our employers are realizing their responsibility in preparing the workforce,” says Catherine Jones, program director for MCC’s Shah Center for Corporate Training. “For so long, manufacturers have put off responsibility and left it to the schools. As they contribute more to our programs, they’re understanding their importance in the entire workforce system.”

In the Golden Corridor, some partners want to hook students even earlier, before they’ve left public schools. Gayle Banakis directs career services for the Northwest Suburban Education to Careers partnership, a nearly 20-year-old effort to prepare students in Harper College’s 23 feeder communities. Her territory stretches from Arlington Heights and Wheeling to Schaumburg, Hoffman Estates and Barrington.

Partnership schools host field trips that allow students to interact with various career clusters, such as health care and manufacturing. Advisers in each building guide students through classes that preview careers of interest.

About five years ago, these districts took an extra step by adopting Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a national curriculum that exposes high schoolers to the principles of engineering, design and computer-controlled manufacturing, through elective courses.

When Skoog approached Banakis about the Golden Corridor group, it was a natural fit. The public schools had a head start.

“Part of aligning with the Golden Corridor is that we are teaching specifically what manufacturers and businesses say they want these students to know,” says Banakis. “Purdue, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Bradley, Harper, Northern Illinois and other universities all give college credit for these courses in applied engineering, which is exactly what the Golden Corridor is looking for.”

Students at Wheeling High School, where Sandvik Coromant’s Pusatera visited, already know what to expect from a career with an advanced manufacturer, because most of them already have hands-on experience.

Wheeling’s technology lab hardly resembles the crude shop class of yesterday. Gone are the woodworking tools and the drafting tables. One room is swallowed up by a Haas computer-controlled milling machine, not unlike those on the shop floor of nearby manufacturers. The adjacent drafting lab is filled with computers, where students are designing a sustainable greenhouse, among other things.

But not all of these high schoolers will pursue careers in manufacturing, and not all will end up on a shop floor, says teacher Mike Geist. Many former students who enrolled in college engineering programs have come back to tell him how well his class prepared them, he says.

Geist knows what his students need, because about twice a year, he and the other technology teachers meet with mentors from local manufacturing partners. He’s also undergone extensive training as a PLTW teacher, and in order to keep the special certification, he must constantly retrain.

All of Geist’s students learn advanced engineering formulas, and those in advanced classes operate the giant Haas machine, cutting out parts for school projects.

“We’re setting up the high schools to address the needs of industry,” he says. “We’re talking about the higher-skill labor forces in advanced manufacturing, because that’s the need, that’s where the jobs are. You’re looking for jobs? This is the field where we have them, and if we don’t start filling these jobs, then we’re going to start losing advanced manufacturing.”

The array of advanced skills that students learn through the program is impressive, says Jeff Jerdee, who oversees PLTW in Wheeling and the other District 214 schools. Students even get a shot at real-world manufacturing, by competing in contests to produce goods or designs requested by partner companies.

“Motorola had a pace car for the last Indianapolis 500 and was going to put a wireless unit on the car,” says Jerdee. “Motorola had to design something that would cover it, protect it, yet keep it cool. The kids designed this unit, and they made it on the 3-D printer. They competed with three other engineering teams, and they got comments back that it was flawed here or needed improvements there. It was really neat for the kids, and a great experience.”

Jerdee is noticing something that bodes well for the Golden Corridor: Kids, along with their parents, are discovering just how fun and exciting computer-based manufacturing is, especially as they build their battling robots for a district-wide competition.

“Over at Hersey High School [Arlington Heights], teachers open up the lab in the evenings for students, because there’s only so much time during school,” says Jerdee. “You have to kick the kids out at 10 p.m. They do this two nights a week, and you can’t get rid of the kids. The parents come in and then they see what the kids are doing because the kids are talking about it so much.”

Next Steps

As corridor leaders continue sharing problems and proposing solutions, there’s a growing sense of what they can accomplish. Both Elgin’s O’Kelley and Schaumburg’s Frank suggest that foreign investment creates a more robust manufacturing economy while spurring development in their communities. But in order to attract foreign investors, pooling resources is essential.

Frank, economic development coordinator in Schaumburg, already courts nearly 90 Japanese-owned manufacturers based there. “We have to show our worth to the businesses and show them that we have the resources for them to succeed and the opportunities to open some doors,” he says. “If we don’t do that, there’s no point in us getting together.”

Partnerships like this may feel new to Chicagoans, but they’re the norm in places throughout the country. All over, industries are partnering with educators and municipal agencies to prepare the workforce and attract new employers.

In Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a Tech Corridor initiative connects economic development agencies, universities and technology firms, such as Go Daddy and Rockwell Collins. The partnership focuses on a stretch along interstates 380 and 80, and targets 10 industrial clusters, including biotechnology, food technology, information services and advanced manufacturing.

In Charleston, S.C., the area’s “knowledge economy” drives incentives for software development, consulting and green technology firms. Leaders of the Charleston Digital Corridor work to attract those who design and plan things, rather than make things. It offers resources for local businesses and educators to connect.

In Illinois, there’s a sense among Golden Corridor partners that they may someday replicate these successes. Skoog readily admits the group has a long way to go.

“We need to get a positive buzz going about manufacturing,” he says. “There’s nothing now – no interest, no knowledge. It’s invisible. That’s what we need to change. We need to make it visible and hip and cool.”