Austin Polytech goes techno

School opens new learning center focused on vocational training

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By LA RISA LYNCH

A new manufacturing technology center dedicated last Thursday at Austin Polytechnical Academy, 231 N. Pine Ave., represents a new shift in educating Chicago Public Schools students.

Gone are the days where classrooms focused solely on writing, reading and arithmetic to prepare students for professional service-oriented jobs. Now the three subjects are infused with more vocational and technical training to secure jobs in advanced manufacturing.

"That one size fits all is over," said Mayor Richard M. Daley, referring to CPS's old approach to education. "We realize that's the wrong thing to do. There is opportunity in every area."

Daley joined several dignitaries, including Congressman Danny Davis (7th), CPS Chief Ron Huberman and several manufacturing business owners, for a ceremonial ribbon cutting of the academy's manufacturing technology center. The center boasts the latest computerize tool-cutting machines and mills that allow students to practice on the same equipment used by modern manufacturers.

Daley lauded the school's effort to put technical education back in mainstream. Daley cited the 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first space orbiting satellite, for diverting CPS off the vocational education track. Austin Polytech was founded in 2007 by the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council (CMRC), a coalition of manufacturers, community residents and laborers, to address hiring shortages in the manufacturing industry. The academy is a pre-engineering and manufacturing high school.

"Years ago educators told us that vocational and technical training is not something that we should promote in the United States," Daley said. "...After Sputnik came, everybody thought we had to change our whole curriculum. In the '70s and '80s, they decertified, unfortunately, technical vocational training. We go into the idea that everybody had to go to college, if not, then you are a failure. Then we realized what we did to our country."

That realization led to a lack of skilled workers in technical manufacturing jobs and off-shore outsourcing, not to mention a generation of youth not interested in the industry, Daley explained.

"Manufacturers tell me that more than anything else, they need people to understand technology," he said, noting that jobs change with technology. And for Chicago to compete globally, the city needs a better trained workforce with technical skills that includes math and science. The manufacturing technology center is about creating a qualified workforce, he added.

Jobs are out there despite media reports of massive losses in manufacturing, said Dan Swinney, CMRC's executive director. True, he contends, manufacturing jobs have gone oversees, but they are low-skilled, low-wage jobs.

Swinney added that major newspapers often report on the financial woes of large manufacturing companies like Motorola, which doesn't make anything in the U.S. However, there are eight million privately held U.S. companies, and 6,000 manufacturing companies in the Chicago area alone looking for highly skilled workers.

Swinney noted that an Austin metal stamping company couldn't fill a position paying $40 an hour plus benefits for a production job. The technology center serves as a bridge to bring jobs to a community that at one time had 20,000 industrial jobs - now down to 2,000 - to companies that need workers.

Area manufacturing companies, he explained, poured more than $150,000 in private funding even during a struggling economy to create the tech center. Other investors include WaterSaver Faucet Co., Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, Tooling & Manufacturers Associations and CPS, which donated machinery for the center.

"Their first instinct is that they need a workforce or they will go out of business," said Swinney, who hopes to offer adult education classes at the center.

This program takes the guess work out of hiring employees since many small manufacturing companies can't afford on-the-job training, contends Glen Johnson, CMRC's founder and co-chair. Johnson owned Oakley Millwork, a window manufacturing company in Frankfurt before recently selling it.

"With this program a manufacturer will know that they can do that work and that is very important," he said, noting that manufactures face a shortage of 5,000 skilled workers annually.

However, Swinney hopes the center changes students' perception of manufacturing. Blacks working in manufacturing "were put on the assembly jobs, lowest paying jobs, the most dangerous jobs" which left a sour impression on a younger generation of blacks, he said.

The school sent several students on a field trip to a recent manufacturing trade show to learn about the "new face of manufacturing," Swinney said. "There is this huge opportunity that people don't understand."

The technology center began this school year for Austin Polytech's junior class. Students split their time between course work and lab work, learning to operate manual mills, lathe machines and computer numerical control machines, which cut metals. Students use computer aided design software to make chess pieces and Christmas tree ornaments. They also learn engraving and how to read a blueprint. Successful students will graduate with national certification in metal working.

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