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April 2020

How Manufacturers Can Work with Community Colleges and High Schools to Train and Recruit

A strong manufacturing sector remains critical to the economic future of Illinois and the nation. Skilled workers are needed to keep manufacturing strong. But great uncertainty surrounds whether there will be sufficient skilled workers to meet employers’ demand.

20-LB-550 stock photoIn a study titled “The Skills Gap in Manufacturing 2015 and Beyond,” Deloitte reported over the decade from 2015 to 2025, 3-1/2 million U.S. manufacturing jobs will have to be filled. The skills gap is expected to mean two million of those jobs will go unfilled.

If Illinois manufacturers are to effectively deal with an anticipated drop in the state labor work force of 337,000 by 2025, they must take fullest advantage of opportunities to partner with community colleges and high schools to train and recruit workers.

This white paper is dived into two sections. In the first, the paper will examine how different courses of study are matched to different manufacturing needs. In the second, the paper probes how manufacturers can work with schools to gain trained workers.

Creating study programs

Joint efforts between schools and manufacturers are a natural, says Jim Nelson, Illinois Manufacturers’ Association (IMA) vice president for education and workforce policy, and executive director of the IMA Education Foundation. Collaboration is based, he says, on “the desire of the community college to serve its constituency, and the desire of manufacturers to create a [recruitment] source of first choice . . . That’s why it behooves manufacturers and community colleges to coalesce in creating programs of study.”

Those programs may be launched either at the behest of a manufacturer or of a school. It works both ways. Whether courses are credit or non-credit depends on the job for which the training is created. For instance, a manufacturer may need only one tool-and-die maker every five years. “It doesn’t make sense for a community college to offer an ongoing program of study in tool-and-die making unless it has a dozen manufacturers in its market area,” Nelson says. Instead, a non-credit course in tool-and-die making is the solution. Creating the course would likely take 30 to 60 days, unless the college had offered it before, and could roll it out with any necessary updates, he adds.

By contrast, credit courses might be created by a community college or high school when a new manufacturing firm moves to the area and needs numerous workers not being trained elsewhere.  Today, given the switch to digital platforms, manufacturers in sectors that don’t employ machinists or welders – the workers traditionally trained in such programs -- are seeking programs of study. Nelson says food processing and packaging, plastic and polymers and electronics “all are now looking at community colleges as well as high schools as training grounds for future employees.”

Introducing a new credit course can take up to a year.  “When you’re offering something for credit toward a degree, there are added steps a local community college must take with the Illinois Community College Board to get that course approved for credit,” Nelson says. “That takes time, because you’re looking at the universal practice standards that course must meet to issue credits toward a college degree.”

Through the state’s ICATT Apprenticeship Program, IMA and the German American Chamber of Commerce partnered with 13 community colleges across the state, from Mount Vernon to Palatine, to create a training pathway for the position of Industrial Maintenance Technician (IMT). IMTs understand not just how to make widgets, but how the hydraulic, pneumatic, mechanical and electrical systems behind the widget-making machinery all work together, Nelson says.

The three-year apprenticeship program results in both an associate’s degree from the community college and internationally-recognized industry credentials.

In Illinois, certified IMTs start at an average salary of $54,000 a year, as compared to machinists’ starting pay of $42,000 to $46,000, and welders’ $32,000 to $40,000. “But any of these occupations can get into six figures quickly with overtime,” Nelson says.

Building relationships

How can manufacturers best leverage the training and recruitment opportunities that community colleges and high schools in their local areas present?

The answer is to meet often with community college and high school vocational program administrators to convey the changing nature of the knowledge and skills they need, Nelson says.  Such meetings can be informal or part of a more structured forum. An example of the latter was a late February “Employer Summit” convened by IMA and Palatine-based Harper College, in which employers were invited to come guide administrators in preparing curricula to train the next generation of manufacturing workers.

How are required knowledge and skills changing?

In metal forming and joining, for instance, workers once needed to possess knowledge of algebra and geometry, Nelson says.

“Today, the move to digital manufacturing means they must have statistics and quantitative analysis skills, so they can analyze the data the machine is providing and make adjustments to assure quality is maintained on every piece -- every time.”

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