Jose Aybar, the president of Richard J. Daley College in Chicago, often tells the story of visiting a manufacturing expo at McCormick Place one day and leaving with an ‘Aha!’ moment.
“I walked up to [huge] machine [that] was turning out about four to five tables,” he said during a manufacturing breakfast hosted by Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st) last month at Freedman Seating in Chicago.
“I looked around for the person running the show for that machine and saw that person working a computer model,” said Aybar, who conceded that, at the time, his knowledge of manufacturing was “very, very shallow.”
It turned out, he said, that person was a petite woman who was earning $75,000 after having obtained an associate’s degree in manufacturing from a community college. And because she had also recently obtained her bachelor’s degree, her employer was going to give her a $10,000 raise. Aybar’s opinion of manufacturing changed in that moment.
“The manufacturing industry has an image problem,” Aybar said. “We see the worker in a manufacturing plant as being that burly fella with greasy hands. That’s changed.”
Aybar was among several community college administrators who shared the challenges of recruiting manufacturing students with a panel of employers and representatives of various government agencies who, in turn, shared the challenges of recruiting trained workers.
Boykin said bridging the divide is key to alleviating the high unemployment rates in certain areas of his district.
“It’s no wonder we have a problem with violence [and] illegal narcotics,” said Boykin. “These problems will not be solved without expanding employment and training opportunities for all of our residents.”
According to a 2016 report by the University of Illinois at Chicago, the 2014 jobless rate among residents, ages 20 to 24, of Austin, East and West Garfield Park, and North Lawndale ranged between 57 percent (Austin) and nearly 74 percent (East Garfield Park).
Irene Sherr, a legislative affairs representative with the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development, said that the Chicago region is one of 24 federally designated manufacturing clusters that receive priority funding and resources designed to spur growth.
“There are about 3,700 firms in the Chicago region with 100,000 employees and $30 billion in sales associated with machinery and fabricated metal,” Sherr said, adding that about half of those firms are small businesses that employ less than 10 workers.
Many employees in those firms are getting ready to retire and are currently looking for fresh workers, said Dr. Henry Bohleke, the dean of business and technology at Triton College.
“When we meet with manufacturers, we hear the chorus of people struggling to fill positions,” Bohleke said. “There are people available, but they don’t have the skills.”
Bohleke said, through its industry partners, Triton offers up to 150 internships each year, but only a fraction of them get filled, “because we can’t get enough people into the programs and through the programs.”
Bohleke said that Triton has introduced new engineering technology programs and experimented with a European training model — which emphasizes paying for students’ education in exchange for commitments to stay with companies for a minimum amount of time — to attract and retain “the best and the brightest” talent.
But he said there’s still some ground to cover before the conventional perception most people have about manufacturing jobs undergoes a change in the country’s popular consciousness.
“Sadly, many people in our education system — including teachers, counselors and even parents — still see a vision of manufacturing [ripped out of] Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 novel The Jungle. Sinclair had a very dim view of manufacturing and even compared it to slavery. Manufacturing has changed a great deal since then.”