How Schools Are Turning on the Talent Pipeline

How do you replace a retiring generation of experienced workers in a high-tech, highly demanding field? For local industries and educators, it begins on a pathway that equips our young people with region’s most in-demand skill sets.

Elgin Community College photo

It’s inevitable. Sooner or later, the teenagers ask, “How do the things I learn in the classroom help me in the real world?”

Ben Rodriguez, assistant principal for technology and innovation at Barrington High School, doesn’t get that question so much anymore. These days, his students are applying classroom lessons in real-world settings. Whether they’re running head-first toward a career path or they’re still exploring their options, teenagers in District 220 are seeing their future right now – before they head to college, or work, or whatever else comes after graduation.

“I have this one student who’s not quite sure where she wants to go,” Rodriguez says. “So, she’s taking electives on culinary arts, she’s taking classes on education and engineering, and she’s trying things out. She’s not sure where she’ll go yet, but I think that’s healthy.”

The approach isn’t unique to Barrington. Over at Cary-Grove and Hampshire high schools, young people are earning manufacturing credentials. At Crystal Lake Central, they’re becoming certified nurses. At Burlington, they’re learning veterinary medicine. At Jacobs, they’re studying computers and cybersecurity. At Dundee-Crown, they’re studying electrical technologies. And the list goes on, in every corner of the region.

The adults behind these changes are driven as much by legislation and policy as they are by a generational shift. They’re watching and listening as baby boomers retire and a new cohort rises into their place. As these schools prepare a new generation for the working world, they’re hoping to see a payoff for employers in every sector of the economy.

“I think students are extremely inquisitive now, and they need to know the big why: Why do I need to know this or why is this going to help me?” says Steve Olson, superintendent of Crystal Lake-based District 155. “I think this is a really great way to invite students into their learning and have them make those connections, not just in the classroom but in the real world. We can really get these kids moving in the right direction.”

(GCAMP photo)

Pipelines and Pathways

For years, manufacturers have talked about the impending retirement of baby boomers.
Call it “skills gap” or “brain drain,” but the idea is the same: this outsized generation has spent decades learning on the job. When they retire, certain knowledge goes with them – unless there are well-trained people to take their place.

But therein lies the problem: there haven’t been enough young people pursuing the advanced, technical qualifications needed by local manufacturers. Certifications in machining or certain types of manufacturing are entry-level qualifications in many of these advanced settings.

“The skills gap is really two parts,” says Kathleen Burley, executive director of Greater Chicago Area Manufacturing Partnership (GCAMP), a nonprofit focused on recruiting new workers to the industry. “There’s the skills gap in that we need to keep promoting promising career pathways in manufacturing. We need to fill the pipeline. The second part is making sure that manufacturers have the tools and knowledge to upskill the people they have within their organizations.”

Manufacturing isn’t the only industry in this dilemma. Recognizing that the skills gap affects all industries, local educators are taking up the gauntlet and helping to feed the pipeline of talent – and they’re developing critical workforce right at home, without forcing businesses to recruit from faraway places.

“We’ve recognized that success can be defined in a number of ways, and it’s not always necessarily a four-year degree, a master’s degree or even a two-year degree,” says Olson. “Entering the workforce or the military is a way to define success, so we want to prepare our kids for what they want to do and what they see as their purpose in life.”

Further encouraging this new mindset is Illinois’ Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act (PWR). Among its requirements, the 2016 law encourages high schoolers to pursue distinct “pathways” in fields like manufacturing, business, health care, public service, media arts and automotive technology. Students begin with general career exploration and, over time, align their elective courses to career interests. Along the way, they engage in job shadows, internships and other experiences. Done properly, this pathway imparts new graduates with certifications, credentials, college credits and a lot of confidence.

“This is hopefully our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to truly rethink and redesign the way education and school looks for students,” says Dr. Melissa Byrne, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for District 220. “This is a pivotal time in our nation and our world to find that intersection between school, learning, industry and our community so we can provide students a way to develop their skills and competencies to create the future they want for themselves.”

Pathways in Barrington

For most youths in District 220, career exploration begins long before high school. A lesson on ocean life might include conversation about marine biologists, or a lesson on the stars might mention astronomers.

“By the time they get to middle school, that’s when we start to home in a little more,” says Kelly Hansen, director of secondary education.

As young as sixth grade, kids interested in engineering, culinary arts, and family/consumer science can sign up for targeted electives.

Once they meet Rodriguez at the high school, these youths embark on a pathway that adapts to their interests. Some of the burgeoning paths at BHS include the entrepreneurship business incubator, culinary arts, education, nursing and horticulture pathways.

“We’ve learned how important agriculture, food and natural resources are, not only to the Chicago area – we’ve been told that it’s the food processing capital of the U.S – but it’s also important to Illinois,” says Rodriguez. “We think about agriculture being just farmers, but there are some similar jobs around this area, and what we’re learning is there’s a great need for soil scientists, food packaging designers, marketers, food processors.”

In some cases, students at BHS earn dual credits and certificates through Harper College and College of Lake County. For those on the health care pathway, that typically means becoming a certified nursing assistant (CNA) in high school.

Rodriguez keeps in touch with local nonprofits and businesses through a series of advisory committees. The feedback from these experts helps align BHS curriculum with industry needs. At the same time, community partners are always needed for guest speaking, job shadowing and internship opportunities.

District 155 photo

Finding Purpose at District 155

Students in the high school-only District 155 follow four phases in their pathway. The first steps involve career assessments, meetings with a counselor and talks with parents. By junior year, students are preparing resumes, job skills and interview skills. The final phase involves job shadows, internships and field trips.

“We need employers and community groups to open their doors to help show students what’s out there,” says Justin DeBolt, director of career experiences for District 155. “I think with the high demand for employment in a lot of our sectors, now is a very good time for these students.”

Inside the district’s four high schools – Crystal Lake Central, Crystal Lake South, Prairie Ridge and Cary-Grove – students encounter a wide range of career-related electives, including a business incubator and classes on woodworking, manufacturing, automotive repair, computer science and culinary arts.

Starting this fall at Central, a new health care lab will help future nurses to graduate as CNAs. The new lab was funded through a $1.5 million grant from McHenry County, part of federal dollars earmarked for COVID-19 recovery.

“I know that Mercy, Advocate, Northwestern and a variety of long-term care facilities from around the county are excited to collaborate on filling CNA roles as well as patient care roles with graduates from this class,” says DeBolt. “And we know some of those students will go on to McHenry County College to advance their nursing careers.”

Indeed, MCC has been a growing partner with the district, helping to boost the number of dual-credit programs. At the same time, the college is using federal dollars to build an advanced manufacturing center and support 10-week internships for 100 local youths.

Community partners are always needed at D155, says DeBolt, and they can help in a variety of ways, from guest speaking to hosting students on-site and hiring graduates. Interested leaders can email [email protected] to start connecting.

District 300 photo

Regional Success at D300

Students at Jacobs, Hampshire and Dundee-Crown high schools can access more than a dozen pathways including early childhood education, electrical technology, pre-law, cybersecurity and welding technology. Not all will result in certifications and credentials, but students of all backgrounds can explore their interests regardless, says Joe Sieczkowski, director of CTE, pathways, and college and career readiness for Algonquin-based District 300.

“We want students to feel like there’s this return on investment for their time,” he adds. “We feel like students who have a clear vision of what they want to do after graduation will be able to accelerate their progress toward whatever career they choose.”

The district began instituting these paths about seven years ago, Sieczkowski says, and the approach has reaped many benefits. At Hampshire, the manufacturing pathway leads to NIMS certification in manual lathe, mill operation and CNC milling, in addition to an American Welding Society certification. “I believe it’s only one of a handful of high schools in the nation that has that,” Sieczkowski adds.

Students from Burlington Central High School, in District 301, also take classes at Hampshire, and in exchange, about 20 students from District 300 join Burlington’s veterinary science pathway.

“They can come out with their veterinary assistant certification, and there’s an agreement with Fox College to accept those courses and accelerate students’ degrees if they decide to continue pursuing their education there,” says Sieczkowski. “We also have an outstanding electrical technology pathway at Dundee-Crown High School. It’s really state-of-the-art.”

This past fall, students from that program competed in the IDEAL National Championship, which is aimed at working professionals and apprentice electricians. The experience gives youngsters a deep view into the real world. “That’s a really cool experience for students,” Sieczkowski says.

Jacobs High has a heavy emphasis on computer networking, cybersecurity, graphic design and website development. And across all three high schools, students can earn transferrable credits from Elgin Community College (ECC).

Before they even arrive at high school, most District 300 students explore their interests. A special rotation during middle school introduces topics like innovative technology, arts and engineering. Starting this summer, students in grades 5 through 8 can sign up for summer camps that cover topics like automotive repair, culinary arts, electricity, manufacturing, engineering and robotics.

Eventually, Sieczkowski hopes students can earn endorsements on their diploma – a long-range vision built into PWR. To achieve a career-related endorsement, students need to complete a certain number of hours in the field, most likely through an internship.

“In the next six to 18 months, we’re going to be doing a lot of outreach to community employers and partners,” Sieczkowski says. “We want to get some support to provide these opportunities.”

Elgin Community College photo

What Happens After Graduation

For the jobs pipeline to work effectively, school districts can’t act alone. Because a critical part of the journey happens at community colleges, ECC is aligning curriculum between its classes and that of its feeder schools, including Districts 300 and 301, U-46 in Elgin and 303 in St. Charles.

“We’re working on increasing the amount of dual credit courses to make sure we’re meeting the needs of those students,” says Dr. Gina De Rosier Cook, dean of workforce development and continuing education at ECC. “And we do a lot of career advising once they’re in those pathways, so they can go to ECC or, more importantly, be thinking about that higher education component.”

While the school does have a robust offering of associate degree-level programs, its Career and Technical Education department is focused on short-term programs that lead to certifications in computer-controlled manufacturing, supply chain management, health care and other fields.

“We always see high demand, interest and need in our health care careers,” says Cook. “Our inaugural course for clinical medical assistants is in high demand both in our local hospitals and our doctors’ offices.”

More importantly, local employers are easing the pipeline by upskilling existing employees and training apprentices – an arrangement in which workers get paid to learn through a combination of on-the-job and classroom work.

Additional resources are available for ECC students who need support services, financial aid and resume/interview prep.

“One of the programs that’s very unique to ECC is we have an employment transition specialist to take any community member who is looking to either re-career or change positions and give them guidance,” says Cook. “If it’s training they need, interview skills, or resume writing, or simple things like how to figure out LinkedIn, we offer this service to everyone in the district.”

Meanwhile, Cook and the college maintain close connections with local employers. The HireSpartans job board is a free forum for the community at large. Employers are invited to offer internships and apprenticeships, and there may be grant money to help offset those costs, says Cook. At the same time, she also hosts an annual conference with local educators, to ensure schools understand the needs of local employers.

“We’re really working with our local businesses to find out what their needs are, and then we can create training programs or opportunities that are looking at their situation,” says Cook. “We’re seeing things a little differently than we had previous to the pandemic.”

Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council photo

Trade Schools

For people who enjoy working with their hands, there is another option that combines hands-on education with a predictable pathway. Many construction careers begin within a union trade school, where people of all ages, from apprentices to seasoned journeymen, develop skills in fields such as carpentry, plumbing and pipefitting, electrical work, and more.

“It’s not a job. It’s a career,” says Vince Sticca, director/coordinator of the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council Apprentice & Training Program in Elk Grove Village. “You’re going to be doing this hopefully for the rest of your life.”

Anyone can join the carpenters union, so long as they live in Illinois, have a diploma or GED, show a valid driver’s license and pass a drug test. Of course, soft skills make a difference, too, as potential members must show up on time, do their homework, demonstrate progress and be a team player, says Sticca.

Each of the union’s 22,000 members began their training during an apprenticeship, which usually lasts about four years. During that time, apprentices balance time on the job with time in the classroom, where they dive into everything the industry affords. Classes cover topics like scaffolding and safety, framing buildings, constructing cabinets, using modern building technologies, and installing everything from studs, drywall and flooring to insulation and siding.

Because the building trades are constantly changing and new technologies are appearing, any member of the carpenters union can enroll in classes. Best of all, there are no out-of-pocket expenses because the school is funded by a portion of every member’s pre-negotiated wages. Benefits and a pension are provided, too.

These apprentices – men and women alike – will put in an estimated 8,000 hours before they become a journeyman carpenter and start climbing the ranks.

“They have more hours of schooling than a bachelor’s degree, because you’re going to school, but when you go to work they’re also teaching you,” says Sticca, who attended college before joining the trades, where he’s been for 47 years. He does some quick math in his head. “If you’re working 40 hours a week, times 52 weeks, that’s 2,080 hours a year, and you times that by four years and you’re over 8,000 hours.”

Many Advantages

Young people are naturally inquisitive, and educators are fully embracing their path to discovery. Plus, they’re finding high school is a surprisingly low-stakes environment.

“A misstep at college can saddle a young person with a lot of debt as they start into the work world,” says Olson, of District 155. “So, we want to make sure students are making good choices. They might find they’re on a path they don’t like. I also know we have many manufacturers in the county who are more than happy to send students off to a junior college to get trained to do specific jobs. And that can eliminate the whole prospect of college tuition debt when they graduate.”

At the same time, students are entering a world where technology continues to evolve with the workplace. Setting them up with the right stepping stones gives them a whole new perspective on building successful lives – and not just finding a job.

“I think it’s safe to say our society is changing so rapidly that we don’t know what jobs are going to be around in 10 years,” says Byrne, of District 220. “It’s quite likely that, instead of applying for jobs, these students are going to be the ones creating jobs as well. So, it’s our obligation to create a path for them to realize their success.”

GCAMP: A Bridge Between Families, Educators and Employers
For more than a decade, the Greater Chicago Area Manufacturing Partnership (GCAMP) has been furthering the conversation on career paths. Born as the “Golden Corridor” partnership in the Hoffman Estates/Schaumburg area, this group of industry leaders, educators and parents is taking the conversation across Chicago, especially since joining forces with Valley Industrial Association, based in Geneva.

Under the direction of Kathleen Burley, a former manufacturer and sales rep, GCAMP is uniting stakeholders across McHenry, Kane, Lake, Cook and DuPage counties and beyond. The challenge, she’s finding, is that many young people and their parents don’t yet appreciate the high-tech nature of today’s advanced manufacturers. These are far from the factories of a century ago. These are settings where automation and computer-controlled machinery do the dirty work.

“Manufacturing careers have become higher-skilled, high-tech in many ways, requiring additional training and education,” says Burley, who’s served as executive director since 2018. “Sometimes, that means a university degree, but more often these days it’s a two-year technical degree or credentials through vocational training. Much can be fortified with on-the-job training, as well.”

Burley is constantly networking with schools, manufacturers, parents and volunteers who want to spread the word and connect with like-minded leaders.

To learn more about manufacturing careers or GCAMP initiatives, visit