As the leaders of the Logan Square-based Chicagoland Manufacturing Renaissance Council see it, there are two things that are holding manufacturing back in the city of Chicago.
First, the companies struggle to attract employees that have the skills they need. Second, as owners age, many of them don’t have a plan in place for what happens next, threatening the future of the industrial businesses that are already there.
During CMRC’s May 24 meeting, they talked about the concrete steps they are taking to resolve these problems. The organization is teaming up with Chicago Teachers Union Foundation, the Manufacturing Connect program and the City Colleges of Chicago to train more instructors that could teach teens and young adults the skills they need.
Many people in the room agreed that the key to continued manufacturing viability in Chicago is to show teens that manufacturing careers can be rewarding and financially lucrative; moreover, those jobs don’t have to involve dirty, low-skilled work that’s typically associated with the field.
The meeting was held at Chicago Teachers Union headquarters. Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward encompasses the union’s headquarters and the surrounding Kidzie Industrial Corridor, said that he understands the importance of the mission.
“The challenge we have in this city and in this country is trying to get folks to do the work, to try to help folks in the city to get jobs, instead of big companies giving visas to [hire] workers from foreign countries,” he said. “There are jobs in Chicago. We just need to be prepared to get them.”
Burnett pledged to give the project his full support.
Victor Dickson, president of the Safer Foundation, talked about the council’s Manufacturing Succession Conversion Project, an initiative designed to ensure that, when industrial business owners retire, their factories will continue to operate under someone else’s ownership.
“We’re [now] facing another risk, and it’s called the Silver Tsunami,” Dickson said. “A large number of people are planning to retire and they haven’t identified a successor. [If their businesses close], we would lose jobs, but we also lose other economic benefits manufacturing would provide.”
To address this challenge, the council set up a non-profit entity that would help match entrepreneurs looking to buy factories and owners who are willing to sell them. Dickson added that the council is especially interested in getting black, Hispanic and female entrepreneurs involved.
Erica Swinney discussed the Manufacturing Connect program, which works to establish partnerships between communities, schools and area manufacturers so that local students will be able to train in skills that would be useful in manufacturing and find out about opportunities that are available. Those opportunities include internships, summer jobs and full-time job opportunities after graduation.
Swinney, Manufacturing Connect’s program director, said that the organization operates a program in Austin College & Career Academy. According to the school’s website, the program allows students to connect with mentors and earn credits that would transfer to the City Colleges of Chicago. Manufacturing Connect is currently in the process of creating something similar in South Chicago’s Bowen High School and Belmont Cragin’s Prosser Career Academy.
But any expansion of programs to teach students industrial job skills requires instructors, which is where the council’s partnership with CTU Foundation and the Richard J Daley College comes in.
Michael Moriarty, of the CTU Foundation’s Quest Center professional development program, explained that their goal is both to teach instructors the necessary skills and to ensure that they are good teachers who can engage students.
Moriarty explained that one teacher told him that the training program “wipes away some of this masculinity.” Before, if a student came to him in distress, the teacher would advise the student to tough it out. Now, he was more willing to actually hear the student out and try to support him.
“Now, he’s giving that shoulder for students to cry on,” Moriarty said. “If [the students] don’t feel the teacher in the classroom appreciates them, it doesn’t matter what the instruction is.
“This is not just ‘We need more shop classes,'” Swinney added. “We need great shop teachers who can inspire people to change the world.”
Moriarty added that they hope that this would help to increase a number of black and Hispanic students who get into manufacturing and trades.
Art Lyons, of the Center for Economic Policy Analysis, said that the directors of manufacturing programs at seven schools throughout Cook County told him that schools tend to emphasize college at the expense of everything else.
There is also the issue of geography. The schools may have programs, but there aren’t any nearby manufacturers they can partner up with. The program directors also said that safety rules for teens under 18 limit what they can do in terms of manufacturing, so some factories shy away from giving opportunities to teens at all.
But the biggest issue, Lyons said, was the stigma surrounding manufacturing.
“All of the program directors and administrators identified the social stigma that attached to manufacturing [as a problem],” he said. “[The perception is that] manufacturing is a dirty, low-wage job with no future. Parents not only don’t want kids in manufacturing, they want them in 4-year colleges. So you have kids who go to 4-year colleges and fail, when they could have gone into [manufacturing] and succeeded.”
Jim Nelson, vice president of external affairs at the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, argued that the skill gap is always going to be a challenge due to how quickly technology changes. He agreed that getting kids involved in manufacturing when they are younger is the key.
“We really do need to build that integrated system that really starts at the middle-school level to introduce kids to wide array of occupation and career opportunities [in manufacturing],” he said. “Now that we have the right people in the room, we have opportunities to build an integrated system that’s fully aligned.”