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The College of DuPage has recently updated its technology education building. Enrollment in manufacturing tech classes has been increasing. Get an inside look at a typical machine shop class.

Making the future: Manufacturers and colleges team up to tackle job vacancies

by Christie Washam
March 08, 2012

Before coming to the College of DuPage, 19-year-old Colin Bodan didn’t know what he wanted to do with his future. Now, after taking Machine Shop 1, he knows there’s a good chance he will have a job nearby when he leaves the school, whether he decides to go with manufacturing, welding or automotive.

How can he be so certain?

Every few weeks a representative from a local company comes in to appeal for applicants.

“Companies are really hungry for employees,” he said. “They really need staff.”

It’s true many manufacturing companies are bringing jobs back home as they race to meet increasing demand, off-set higher transportation costs and address quality concerns. But those jobs aren’t necessarily ones regular people can just walk into, nor, somewhat surprisingly, are there crowds of qualified people clamoring to fill the slots.

So how can companies recruit people into jobs that are traditionally stereotyped as low paying, physical and dirty?

“We need to change perceptions,” said Tessa Bergmans, in human resources with Dynomax Inc., a Wheeling-based manufacturer of precision components for industries such as aerospace, medical and transportation. “The jobs are challenging and they pay well. Our machinists make comparable wages to our engineers.”

Anthony Genovese, quality manager at West Chicago-based Tomenson Machine Works Inc., which makes manifolds for industrial vehicles, spoke with students in DuPage’s Machine Shop 1 class a few weeks ago. His objective was to recruit workers to fill vacant jobs at the company, specifically as computer numerical control mill operators and set-up personnel as well as quality control inspectors. He said wages for these jobs run from $12 to $25 an hour depending on experience. The door is always open for new hires, he said. In January, the company took on five new employees. In total, 170 people currently work at the facility.

Full-time jobs at Tomenson also come with benefits such as health and life insurance, tuition reimbursement--as long as classes directly relate to manufacturing--and 401K options. The company is considered green; it recycles its waste and creates its own coolant. Any heavy lifting is done by cranes, and investments are made in having the very latest equipment. It recently spent $150,000 on a new parts washer, Genovese said.

In Downers Grove, Flexible Steel Lacing Co., also known as Flexco, makes components for conveyor belts. General Manager Kevin Dunne says, “This is not the shop of the 1950s. We still have some older technologies, but we are moving at a very nice pace to improve.” Employees get standard benefits and, somewhat unusual nowadays, pensions. The company has been named one of Chicago’s best companies to work for every year since 2008 by 101 Best and Brightest Companies.

The manufacturing industry has changed dramatically in the last few decades, but the employee pool hasn’t kept pace. Up to half of the current manufacturing workforce is slated for retirement in the next decade and those who remain are struggling to keep up with the new skills needed to operate highly technical machines.

Bergmans says most of the resumes that come across her desk are from male applicants in their 30s. Those who are skilled are closer to retirement and those just starting out lack basic science, technology, engineering and math education.

“We have to train people to be experts,” Dunne said, reflecting on applicants. “We’re not seeing experts available.”

How do companies ensure that their employees have the right training and that new hires have the right experience?

According to the Obama administration, it may start with partnerships between manufacturers and community colleges. The relationship is mutually beneficial and, in the past two years, has become a more prominent feature of the American manufacturing landscape.

While companies get skilled applicants and employees, the colleges get funding for new equipment to keep up with technological changes.

Jim Filipek, coordinator of the manufacturing program at the College of DuPage, said in the past year, enrollment in the manufacturing program has increased by 20 percent to 219 students. But only a few come straight from high school. Most are returning to school to upgrade their certifications and to learn how to operate new machinery. The average age of students is 35 with about 20 percent looking for degrees; the other 80 percent are pursuing certificates and supplemental training.

Last year, Filipek said 65 companies in Illinois were looking to hire DuPage students for multiple positions.

Each college hour costs $129 for in-district students, who make up 90 percent of DuPage’s enrollment. In 2011, course hours in the technical occupational segment, which includes manufacturing technology, welding and automotive programs, were at their highest point since 2005 at 45,119.

DuPage’s technical segment also receives funding from the state and from the federal government in the form of a Carl D. Perkins grant. All money received is directly invested in keeping the school’s equipment up-to-date. Filipek said that he recently purchased a $35,000 piece of computer-controlled machinery. In the past two years the school has invested $100,000 in its milling equipment.

Companies such as Tomenson, which offers tuition reimbursement, encourage employees to keep learning. “We invest that time in you,” Genovese said to the students as he explained the company’s in-house training program and out-of-house education options. “We want to maintain you.”

Most students are part-time and typically take six college hours a semester because they work full-time as well.

Melissa Martin, 22, received her associate’s degree in graphic design from DuPage, but decided to come back for her welding certificate. A Jehovah’s Witness, she plans to use her welding skills to help build the organization’s new headquarters and then to do volunteer construction with the organization abroad.

Martin said students spend less than an hour at their desks during class; the rest is spent on the machines, learning by doing. “You can look info up in a book,” she said, “but it takes practice to get the muscle memory.”

Dynomax runs an apprenticeship program with community colleges such as DuPage. Younger students apply for the program and become full-time employees who are mentored by senior employees. The older workers pass on their knowledge of the work environment and the tricks of the trade, Bergmans said. Currently, Dynomax employs eight apprentices.

Flexco has a similar apprenticeship program and also offers a selection of certificate programs. Ten employees are currently enrolled in the manufacturing certificate program at nearby community colleges including DuPage, and 19 are participating in a shop math course, which teaches everything from basic arithmetic to trigonometry. In total, Flexco employees spent 3,715 hours in some form of training last year.

“Time is the biggest investment,” said Sarah Schindlbeck, training specialist at Flexco. “It does take away from production when employees go to training.” But, she added, having skilled workers ultimately leads to better productivity because less time is spent fixing errors.

In June, President Obama announced an offshoot of the Skills for America’s Future campaign, which aims to do what businesses such as Dynomax and Flexco have been doing. It will focus primarily on the manufacturing sector to help 500,000 students get the credentials they need to work in the industry.

While community colleges are at the center of the increased attention to manufacturing education, Bergmans said the issue begins even earlier, as early as junior high when teens lose interest in math and science courses. And due to budget cuts, schools are also dropping electives such as shop class, where students would develop an interest in making a product themselves.

“Everyone was told to go to college,” Martin said. “My high school didn’t push trade.” She discovered welding through an art teacher, not a shop class.

Bodan heard about the industry through someone he caddied for during the summer rather than from a guidance counselor.

While traditional college is important, not everyone can afford to go or spend four years without being sure a job awaits them after their walk across the stage. Right now, the alternative for many is not to pursue further education in any field, Bergmans said.

“If people aren’t challenged, aren’t finding their calling, they could start to develop an attitude or behavior that can be destructive to the community,” she said. “Education is an investment of the student in themselves.”

Luckily it seems, more students are finding their way to the right schools giving them the right training for a specific job—a job that industry professionals say has security.

The old days of boom-and-bust seasons have passed and every month more companies are on-shoring and in-sourcing, bringing production facilities back to America.

“There are opportunities in American manufacturing,” Dunne said. “Made in the USA is still a premium in the global marketplace.”