Across the Chicago region and the Rust Belt, thousands of small to medium-sized manufacturing firms have been soldiering on through decades of outsourcing and disinvestment. Many are led by aging owners struggling to find qualified and willing employees or successors to run their companies.
Into the breach comes Manufacturing Connect, a program based in Austin College and Career Academy on Chicago’s West Side, that trains young people like Deandre Joyce to work in manufacturing. Today, Deandre is earning $13.25 an hour at Wm. Dudek Manufacturing Company on West Armitage Avenue making parts for outdoor grills.
Deandre likes the physical aspect of the work and cannot see himself sitting in front of a computer. More important, the job keeps him away from the destructive street life that has claimed many members of his family.
“I have older brothers and sisters going in and out of jail. I’m doing better than them,” he said, adding, “You gotta stick with it.”
Deandre has stuck with it on and off for six years. Thanks to Manufacturing Connect, he started a job immediately after graduation in 2012. Two years later he started a clothing store but recently came back to manufacturing.
“Manufacturing lasts forever. We are always going to need things to be made,” Deandre said. He still plans to be a business owner.
In the last seven years, the program at Austin CCA has trained 277 students in basic metal-working and other manufacturing skills. About 200 have earned industry credentials and half of them have gone on to work in manufacturing where starting wages are about $11, above minimum wage and higher than retail and service industry jobs.
Rahkeem Buford is also a graduate of Austin CCA. He has been working at Paasche Airbrushes on the Northwest Side of Chicago for six years. Today he earns almost $20 an hour making beauty supplies and professional painting products. He speaks soberly of friends who have been killed or have been in and out of jail.
“Most of them are just stuck. They don’t know what they want to do. They don’t have options. They flip burgers but don’t see the importance of the job. Manufacturing is a team effort. People looking forward to using the product,” he said proudly.
Rahkeem’s goal is to be a foreman and then a plant manager but he’s not sure he is cut out for ownership, saying, “I’m not a people person. I would rather just do the work.”
Tyrenick “Tyree” Scott works at Ferrara Candy in Bellwood, Illinois, just west of Chicago. She graduated from Austin in 2014 and worked for several years in fast food before transitioning into manufacturing. Today she earns $13.50 per hour sampling raw materials used to make vitamins.
“It’s very hands-on. There’s something new to learn every day. You can’t get bored,” she said.
Last year, Manufacturing Connect expanded into two additional Chicago public high schools, Prosser and Bowen, serving about 170 kids. According to Program Director Erica Staley, Manufacturing Connect succeeds because of the close partnership with industry and the support services she provides to insure employees don’t give up.
“Our young people face so many barriers but we can’t let them slip. If they are having trouble getting to work, staying clean or coping with personal issues, we help them and they help each other. The employers are supportive because they really need workers,” she said.
All told, program graduates have stayed in the field an average of 10 months, though the ones who are currently working have stayed an average of nearly two years. Some others have continued their education or moved out of the field.
Staley believes her employment and retention rates are significantly better than many career and technical education programs serving a similar population.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 12.7 million people in America working in manufacturing today. Estimates of unfilled jobs run as high as 500,000.
A recent report from the Century Foundation and the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois estimates that there are at least 16,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the Chicago region. The report also says there are two openings for every applicant.
Manufacturing Connect is funded through local, state and federal grants, foundations and from local labor unions. Area employers also contribute and 55 currently partner with the program offering paid internships as well as job offers.
Craig Freedman, the fourth-generation owner of Freedman Seating, also on Chicago’s West Side, insists manufacturing can thrive in the current economy, especially if programs like Manufacturing Connect can steer young people into the field.
“Finding, training and retaining skilled workers is probably our biggest challenge,” said Freedman, adding, “There’s a negative perception of manufacturing. Parents don’t want their kids working in dark, dingy facilities but most of what they are doing is programming computers and running million-dollar pieces of equipment. For every person displaced by a machine we hire someone with more skill at a higher rate.”
Freedman advises the board of Manufacturing Renaissance, the affiliated policy arm of Manufacturing Connect. Recently, MR started an organized called the Young Manufacturers Association to build a network of young workers interested in careers in the field and in someday becoming owners.
At a recent evening meeting of the YMA at Austin CCA, 15-20 young people gathered for pizza, conversation and camaraderie. They shared work stories and offered advice to recent high school graduates who are about to start new jobs.
“Don’t mess up. Be on time,” said one young man, adding, “No attitude.”
One man casually complained that he was, “Tired of working with old people.”
Another suggested he get a job for a friend so they can support each other, explaining, “My friend texts me to get up in the morning to make sure I get to work on time. We push each other to keep going.”
A young woman said, “Be open to the people speaking to you and always ask questions. If you find someone with experience, watch them and take notes.”
She said that she appreciates the chance to meet other people in the field who have faced challenges she has faced in her South Side community where violence is commonplace.
“Programs like this give you an opportunity to come face to face with other people going through the same problems,” she said.
Joshua Brooks, a local community organizer hired to run YMA steered the conversation towards the social and economic climate in Chicago’s African-American communities. He prompted a conversation on a recent anti-violence protest that shut down the northbound lanes of a major expressway on a Saturday morning.
“I don’t think marching really solves anything. It just makes a commotion,” said one young man. An older man who joined the meeting asked, “What do you think would work?”
“Jobs,” said a voice in the back of the room and a chorus of agreement followed. One formerly incarcerated gang member explained that his friends from the gang are now asking him how they can get jobs when, “You got a background.”
“Now I’m a leader,” he said proudly, adding, “If you want to end gang violence, you have to give people jobs.”
Brooks closed the meeting with a pep talk about guiding the “shorties,” saying, “We are the change. Think about those little things you can do inside your community. When you see young dudes, speak to them. They look up to you.”