Chicago Addresses Manufacturing Workforce Challenges

Dec. 4, 2015
At a recent event put on by The Atlantic, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other Chicago and Illinois leaders tackled the issues facing industry’s workforce—particularly around education and the changes needed.

Asked recently how he can continue to develop beneficial programs while his dashboard lights up with the destructive dark side of crises, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel insisted that any challenge must be seen as an opportunity to move forward. That was a few days before Thanksgiving, before he found himself under fire—people calling for his resignation because of the way the city and police department handled the police shooting of black teen Laquan McDonald a year ago.

Nonetheless, during his time as mayor, Emanuel has looked at the challenges facing his city and developed programs to turn those challenges around. One of those challenges was what he saw as an education system that was not preparing the workers of tomorrow for an ever-advancing manufacturing industry.

Emanuel is concerned that the U.S. as a country has not updated its education or infrastructure to adapt to a changing world. “Our educational system stops at 12th grade, and yet the jobs of tomorrow require a minimum of two years beyond,” he said during an event just before Thanksgiving called Bold Bets: Future of Manufacturing.

Emanuel is trying to create a city with the best-trained, best-educated workforce. Making reference to a federal system of job training programs that has not only been confusing but has led local systems to be similarly confusing, Emanuel said Chicago set out to systematically consolidate its programs—to “make it easy, make it simple, make it relevant.”

Chicago has seven community colleges—the second most in the country. Each school is focused on the most promising areas for jobs, Emanuel said, and they’ve asked the related industries to help design the curriculum to teach what they need.

A high school degree might’ve gotten you somewhere in your career 20 years ago, but that’s not the case today, Emanuel said. “It’s clear today that everybody is going to need two years of post-high school education.”

That’s what Chicago is trying to address with its Chicago Star Scholarship, which aims to ensure the city’s workforce has at least a 14th-grade education. “We will always go right if we invest in our people,” Emanuel said.

Through the Chicago Star Scholarship, which was launched a little over a year ago, City Colleges of Chicago provides tuition, fee and book waivers to qualifying high school graduates to help them get an associate degree with no out-of-pocket costs.

“You get a B average in Chicago public schools, and community college is free. Cost will not be a prohibitive factor,” Emanuel said. “We’re going to a pre-K to college model. If we can be a city where everybody has a minimum of 14th-grade level, Chicago will win. There’s no way China or India or Germany will beat us.”

Emanuel—who had just returned from a quick trip to Guangzhou, China, where he attended the annual forum U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade—had some insights into the challenge of losing jobs to developing nations like China.

“At one level China is a competitor, but there’s nothing that they’re doing that if we don’t do it right here, we can not only compete, but win,” Emanuel emphasized. “China won’t eat our lunch if we do our homework right. But if we don’t do our homework, there’s no guarantee.”

Chicago is working to get it right, developing programs to help fill the skills gap so often referenced in the manufacturing industry. Aurora University, for example, in the Chicago suburbs, created a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program to get kids interested at a younger age, noted Illinois state senator Linda Holmes, also during the Bold Bets event in Chicago.

Aurora University created a STEM partnership school—a “completely new concept,” Holmes said—to help bridge the obvious disconnect between students unable to find jobs and employers unable to find qualified workers. The John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School, located on the university’s campus, is for students in third through eighth grades. It develops not only the students, but also the teachers. The school is staffed through a professional development strategy that has teachers from the partner districts as faculty while they complete Aurora’s graduate coursework in math and science education.

“The school then pairs up with local businesses. The businesses not only help the school in the financial aspect, but also create the curriculum,” Holmes explained. “Now the students are actually learning the skills they need for jobs. I think it’s very promising.”

There are too many students finishing high school who are not properly prepared to start college, and that’s a problem Chicago and the country as a whole needs to acknowledge, said Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

Ramirez described a Chicago-area high school program aimed at better preparing students for success in college and career opportunities. Created in a high school that had closed on Chicago’s west side, Austin Polytech Academy (APA) was founded by Chicago Public Schools and the Chicagoland Manufacturing Renaissance Council about eight years ago. The school works with Manufacturing Connect on engineering and machining courses to help students apply their skills to real-world work experiences with local manufacturers.

The students are getting their high school educations, but also NIMS certification, Ramirez pointed out. To top it off, the school is also in session at night to help train parents to better compete in the workforce as well. “This is working. The scalability is completely possible,” he said. “This is going to come down to political wherewithal.”

The discussion at the Bold Bets event also turned to the increasingly technical nature of manufacturing. The days of just making widgets are over, Emanuel said, and manufacturing has become not just a job, but a career. “We need to prepare the city to advance in advanced manufacturing.”

He pointed in particular to UI Labs, a research and commercialization collaborative that has set up its headquarters on Chicago’s Goose Island. “It makes Chicago the center of digital research,” Emanuel said. “It’s going to create a backbone of research.”

Manufacturing generates more data than any other sector of the economy, according to Bill King, Andersen chair in engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and co-director of the Illinois Advanced Manufacturing Institute. “When we talk to manufacturing leaders and ask them how much of their data they use, it’s very little of it—1 or 2 percent,” said King, who was also the founding CTO at UI Labs’ Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII). “This is a huge opportunity for data as an asset.”

It also means that—despite the idea that robots are taking away U.S. manufacturing jobs—the workforce is as relevant as ever. “Manufacturing digitization makes knowledge workers more important,” King said. “It is a really exciting time to be a technology person. We know what it looks like when there’s a sector of the economy that becomes digitized. They’re very excited to bring new technologies and new business models to bear.”

About the Author

Aaron Hand | Editor-in-Chief, ProFood World

Aaron Hand has three decades of experience in B-to-B publishing with a particular focus on technology. He has been with PMMI Media Group since 2013, much of that time as Executive Editor for Automation World, where he focused on continuous process industries. Prior to joining ProFood World full time in late 2020, Aaron worked as Editor at Large for PMMI Media Group, reporting for all publications on a wide variety of industry developments, including advancements in packaging for consumer products and pharmaceuticals, food and beverage processing, and industrial automation. He took over as Editor-in-Chief of ProFood World in 2021. Aaron holds a B.A. in Journalism from Indiana University and an M.S. in Journalism from the University of Illinois.

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