TOPICS > Economy

High-Tech Illinois Company Looks to Bridge Workers’ ‘Skills Gap’

March 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
WTTW Chicago reports on an Illinois company trying to fill highly skilled, high-tech jobs and why other advanced-manufacturing companies are facing similar problems as parents and students shun manufacturing jobs over perceived stigmas and concerns about the long-term viability of the industry in America.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And next to the job market and a question that keeps percolating: Why are several hundred thousand manufacturing jobs going unfilled, even as the official unemployment rate remains above 8 percent?

One possible answer: Too many workers simply don’t have the knowledge and experience to do the skilled manufacturing required these days.

Ash-har Quraishi of WTTW Chicago reports on an Illinois company tackling that concern.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI, WTTW Chicago: Even in a down economy with unemployment here hovering around 10 percent, Central Illinois-based Excel Foundry and Machine has a problem.

You have jobs that you can’t fill.

DOUG PARSONS, president, Excel Foundry and Machine: Correct.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Doug Parsons is Excel’s president and CEO.

Located in Pekin, Illinois, about 20 miles outside of Peoria, Excel is in the business of manufacturing after-market parts for open pit mining equipment. With a work force of about 300, the niche manufacturing company currently has 50 openings, most of which are high-skilled, high-tech manufacturing jobs.

DOUG PARSONS: The ability for us to go out and find an employee with the skill sets that we need and be able to plug them right into our work force just doesn’t exist.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings in manufacturing grew from 98,000 in January 2009 to a projected 264,000 in December of 2011, an increase of over 169 percent.

At the same time, hiring has only increased 62 percent. Dennis Vicchiarelli is the Managing Director of World Business Chicago, a nonprofit focused on bringing manufacturing and other high-tech companies to the city. He says the gap is due in part to the changing nature of manufacturing itself, which is still perceived as dirty, tedious, and back-breaking.

DENNIS VICCHIARELLI, managing director, World Business Chicago: It’s not manufacturing in the sense of what we would have witnessed maybe 20, 30 years ago. It’s a lot of advanced manufacturing, meaning that these are highly automated, computerized facilities, and requiring a very, very skilled individual who can work in these facilities.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Experts say a shift away from traditional shop classes, vocational training and apprenticeships has left students without a clear picture about what a career in manufacturing would look like.

With automation and outsourcing to other countries, the demand for less-skilled jobs in American factories has diminished. And with an aging work force looking to retire, manufacturing is seeing a deficit of workers who can fill jobs that require higher technical and computer aptitudes.

DOUG PARSONS: You have got kind of a work force that’s aging now. You have got a disinterested younger generation. And then you have got kind of what’s left in the middle. And that’s not enough to fill the need.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: The problem is compounded for companies like Excel that are prospering. The company has seen its sales increase from $15 million to $100 million over the last nine years. In fact, they’re doing so well, they’re in the midst of a $15 million expansion.

With that expansion, Excel Foundry expects to create about 100 new jobs over the next two years, but with an already exhausted pool of skilled workers, the company is looking to educational partners to manufacture a work force.

At Illinois Central College, less than 20 miles from Excel, students are learning the basics of welding, but now the college is also in the business of training machinists and welders for specific jobs at area companies, companies like Excel and Caterpillar, who have found new hires, many of whom have the drive, but not the skills to hit the ground running.

Michael Sloan is the dean of agricultural and industrial technologies at ICC.

MICHAEL SLOAN, dean of agricultural and industrial technologies, Illinois Central College: It’s a real basic program, just blueprint reading, traditional machining and CNC operation. And we can train somebody in that program in about six weeks.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Since 2005, the college has trained 400 CNC, or computer numerically controlled, machine operators for Peoria-based Caterpillar. And it just recently trained its first class for Excel.

Austin McClanahan was one of six employees in that class.

AUSTIN MCCLANAHAN, CNC machinist, Excel Foundry and Machine: Well, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I first got out of high school. And one of my teachers had mentioned this, one of my welding teachers. And I came out here and applied. And I got the job. And I have been loving it ever since then.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Once he was hired as a CNC operator, Excel sent him back to school to pick up the skills he needed.

AUSTIN MCCLANAHAN: It was a lot of one-on-one. And it helped me a lot in everything I do.

MAN: This is in series with this, but these are in parallel with one another.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: The partnership helps Excel by cutting down on their employee training costs. Instead of spending thousands in on-the-job instruction, the college program costs Excel about $650 per student, with state funding picking up the remaining $350.

It’s the kind of model the Obama administration has endorsed. Last month, the president announced a new $8 billion program to bolster partnerships between community colleges and businesses. The goal is to train two million workers for jobs in high-growth and high-demand industries , including advanced manufacturing.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We also need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers, places where folks can learn the skills that local businesses are looking for right now from data management to high-tech manufacturing.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Training health care workers has become a priority for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who recently pledged nearly a half-billion dollars in capital investments to upgrade Chicago’s city college system.

It’s another industry dealing with a shortage of skilled workers.

RAHM EMANUEL (D), mayor of Chicago: You have people looking for jobs. You have employers looking for skilled workers. And the only thing that can link them up is the educational system.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: But, in addition to that link, Sloan says there has to be interest from students.

MICHAEL SLOAN: People are afraid to think about a manufacturing career, because they think, why would I go into a career that’s going to be short-lived? But that’s — that’s a fallacy. That’s not true.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: He says his CNC machining classes are nearly empty, despite the demand for workers.

MICHAEL SLOAN: So, culinary arts, for example, I have a lot of enrollment in the culinary arts, whereas CNC operator is one of our high-demand areas. Right now, we have 200 openings just within the Peoria area.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: The key, say some experts, is a sustained effort at making manufacturing careers more attractive.

MICHAEL SLOAN: There’s sort of been attention given to manufacturing over the years, but it kind of happens in sort of — sort of these fits and starts. And there hasn’t been a consistent kind of long-term approach that you really need if you’re going to make some of the large-scale changes that we’re talking about, cultural changes.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: Excel CEO Doug Parsons agrees. He says the training initiative is the first step in revitalizing interest.

DOUG PARSONS: I think we need to get to the homes and educate parents, who still have that stigma that it’s a dead-end job, it’s dirty, it’s for losers. It’s not. It’s really kind of the future, and there is this resurgence.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI: It’s a future Austin McClanahan buys into. He says machining has given him an opportunity to work with his hands and earn a good living. The starting salary is about $40,000 a year. But, more importantly, he’s developing a skill set that is in demand.