One of the largest employers in the Austin-Humboldt Park area is poised to get even larger. Freedman Seating Company, located at 4545 W. Augusta Boulevard, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Feb. 4 for the opening of a new engineering and purchasing facility.
“We’ve invested $10 million into this facility over the last 15 years,” said the 120-year-old company’s president, Craig Freedman.
He spoke in the older wing of the expansive factory while waiting for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to show up. A few hundred feet from Freedman and the television camera crews sat a $1 million state of the art fiber laser machine waiting to be unwrapped and installed.
The machine represents the new frontier of 21st Century manufacturing and, by extension, the manpower required for the work that computers are not yet smart enough pull off.
“We need qualified people who can work in an advanced manufacturing environment,” Freedman said. “These are all lasers that are numerically controlled and need a higher amount of skill to operate.”
Moe Guzman is one of those skilled workers. The Oak Lawn resident, whose main responsibilities are to maintain the heavy-duty equipment that manufactures seating for a variety of large clientele, including coach buses, boats, ships, ferries and trains, said that he’s been working for Freedman for five years and loves the job.
“I went through an apprenticeship program in Indiana 25 years ago, where I worked as a millwright,” he said. “That’s how I got into the trade.”
Freedman Seating, as its name suggests, is a company that manufactures seating and seating-related products for commercial clients, such as the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).
In 2013, Freedman signed a contract with CTA to manufacture seating for 350-400 new buses, a deal which, at the time, the agency estimated would pump more than $8 million into the local economy and create 100 skilled jobs.
“The company actually doubled that projection and created 200 jobs,” said Catherine Turco, Mayor Emanuel’s assistant press secretary.
“We’ve added 200 jobs over the last two years,” Freedman said. “We expect to add another 75 over the next year and a half.”
Freedman said that a major share of his company’s workforce is either from, or lives in, the Austin area and over 90 percent live in the city.
“I believe there’s about 80 people who come from Austin and [more than] 500 live in Austin,” Freedman said. “We’d like more, but we have to all work together to bring that training and skills here to make that happen.”
“When I first came here [about] four years ago, there were about 450-475 employees,” said Mayor Emanuel. “When that facility is operating there will be north of 700 employee manufacturing jobs—jobs you can raise a family on, a middle-class existence. [We’re] also making sure that kids who go to Austin Polytechnic, a manufacturing high school right down the block […] are getting the education they need in science, technology, engineering, math [and] advanced manufacturing.”
Alderman Emma Mitts (37th) recalled how her office was influential in helping Freedman secure the CTA contract. She said that she worked as an intermediary between the company, CTA President Forrest Claypool and former mayor Richard M. Daley.
“I just brought them together and it was enough to get the ball rolling,” she said. “I’m excited to be here to see the expansion of manufacturing in Chicago here in the 37th Ward.”
Mitts said that Freedman’s brand new facility used to be a senior citizen’s home. When the senior facility ran out of state funds, it closed down, leaving behind a vacant property in its wake.
“This not only creates new jobs, but it also takes over a building that was vacant,” Mitts said.
Darryl Jefferson was also excited, but vigilant. He was at the ribbon-cutting as a liaison between this brave new world of manufacturing employment and Austin’s ex-offender community.
Jefferson, a job developer with the Westside Health Authority, wanted to discuss the WHA’s ex-offender transition program with Freedman.
“This job program, which comes from a grant [administered by] the City of Chicago, helps transition ex-offenders into good-paying jobs,” Jefferson said, adding that his organization has placed several of its clients with Freedman.
“Hopefully we can get them to hire some more,” he said.