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Manufacturers look at schools to replace retiring baby boomers

Haines Middle School seventh-graders Tyler Henriksen (left) and Sam Shaw work on a project in their automation and robotics class, which is part of St. Charles School District 303's Project Lead the Way program.
Haines Middle School seventh-graders Tyler Henriksen (left) and Sam Shaw work on a project in their automation and robotics class, which is part of St. Charles School District 303's Project Lead the Way program.

Sometimes when talking with students, Jim Nelson of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association asks them to name two things in the room that are not manufactured.

The question usually amazes them, he said, because they’ve never thought about it. He tells them that guesses such as the classroom’s walls are incorrect because somebody had to make the concrete.

“Finally somebody will say, ‘The air we’re breathing,’ ” he said, noting the other nonmanufactured item is the students themselves.

Educating students about careers in manufacturing has become a priority for manufacturers as they look to replace an aging workforce.

In Illinois, Nelson said, manufacturers are challenged with replacing 30,000 production workers per year for the next 15 years because baby boomers are retiring.

“That’s about 5 percent of our workforce per year,” he said, noting roughly 600,000 people statewide work in manufacturing.

And so, in the last three and a half years, the IMA Education Foundation has shifted its focus from addressing education policy and funding to dealing with remedies for the skills gap, Nelson said.

The entire education system – from preschool to post-baccalaureate – is of interest to the manufacturers, he said.

He, along with others from various organizations, recently visited the Gateway to Technology classes at Haines Middle School in St. Charles. A precursor to the high schools’ Project Lead the Way program, the middle school courses include design and modeling and automation and robotics.

Eighth-graders Grace Sopha and Dmi Petrusha – students in the Magic of Electrons class – said they like to learn how electronics work. Their classmate Tom Pye agreed, using computers as an example.

“To know how they really turn on is very interesting,” the 13-year-old said.

St. Charles School District 303’s Project Lead the Way programs are supported by St. Charles-based Bison Gear & Engineering Corp. Company Chairman Ron Bullock said it is in businesses’ own interests to support such educational efforts, as they are building the pipelines for future workers.

Bullock – who has two grandsons in the district’s middle school programs – said such classes also give students a chance to test-drive career paths before they need to make a commitment.

“It’s important that people enjoy what they do as a career,” Nelson said. “Otherwise, it’s work.”

Kane County, along with other counties in the metropolitan area, is participating in Accelerated Training for Illinois Manufacturing, a program funded by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity through a U.S. Department of Labor Workforce Innovation grant.

ATIM aims to address the skills gap between job seekers’ skills and those required for today’s manufacturing by providing training for such positions as CNC operators, welders, industrial machinery mechanics and robotics technicians.

Kane County aims to have 35 participants, and 19 have signed up so far, said Renee Thompson, administrator of the Kane County Department of Employment & Education. Of those, five have started their training, she said, noting partners include community colleges and schools that specialize in specific occupations.

Participating employers – which include Burgess-Norton Manufacturing in Geneva – then can consider the individuals for any openings they might have, Thompson said.

Kent Wrenn, training development manager at Burgess-Norton, said Accelerated Training for Illinois Manufacturing is another way the company can find qualified workers.

That’s a challenge any high-tech manufacturing company has today, Wrenn said. In addition to the retiring baby boomer population, he said, a lack of emphasis on vocational education in high schools and more sophisticated
technology requiring greater skills to operate contribute to the shortage of skilled workers.

“We’re trying every angle possible to increase the qualified pool of workers,” Wrenn said, noting the company also has apprenticeship and internship programs.

Wrenn said his company embraces programs such as Accelerated Training for Illinois Manufacturing.

“We like it because it’s a public-private partnership, and we need that,” he said. “As everybody does a little bit and does their part, we can begin to reverse this trend and begin to create a pool of qualified people who are interested in these careers.”

For information about Accelerated Training for Illinois Manufacturing, visit or the workNet Centers at 2 Smoketree Plaza in North Aurora or 30 DuPage Court in Elgin.

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