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updated: 11/29/2011 2:43 PM

Manufacturing remains strong industry, career choice

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By Dr. Christine Sobek
Waubonsee Community College

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of the death of U.S. manufacturing are greatly exaggerated.

While the United States certainly faces much greater global competition than in the past, U.S. manufacturing remains the worldwide leader in terms of production output. Even in a time of high unemployment, local manufacturers say they still need skilled workers to help meet the demand for their products.

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I recently heard the latest manufacturing and international business trends directly from several regional experts when Waubonsee Community College hosted the Daily Herald Business Ledger Newsmaker's Forum at our downtown Aurora Campus. The prestigious panel included Janice Christiansen, president and CEO of J.C. Schultz/The Flagsource in Batavia. Christiansen, who also serves as chairman of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, said many Illinois manufacturers are beginning to see business improve. She called the mood in the state "cautiously optimist."

However, even with this growth, manufacturers report difficulty finding qualified employees to join their workforce. This employment gap is due to changes in the industry requiring workers to have new skills and, unfortunately, also to an outdated perception of the manufacturing environment. Instead of dirty floors and greasy equipment, employees are more likely to work in a highly technical setting. The panelists all agreed that community colleges provide essential education and training to ensure a skilled workforce exists, helping Illinois manufacturers continue to grow and compete in the global marketplace.

Waubonsee partners with numerous local manufacturers to provide critical workforce training. This summer, Waubonsee provided welding training for Caterpillar employees at a time when the company needed additional welders. The college's Workforce Development department regularly delivers customized training for all types of industries. Waubonsee also helps address local workforce needs through the college's strong occupational degree and certificate programs. Graduates from industrial disciplines leave college well prepared for employment.

The college also partners with all local high schools to raise awareness about the many manufacturing careers available throughout the Fox Valley and Chicago area. The Valley Industrial Association and Valley Education for Employment System are both critical allies in this effort. The college recently hosted our annual Manufacturing Career Awareness event, where high school students met with local manufacturers and learned about job paths and opportunities. Students always enjoy the ability to view product demonstrations and see the latest technology in action.

These remain tough times for many manufacturers, but a hopeful trend discussed by manufacturing experts is "reshoring" -- where companies bring jobs back to the United States. These companies will need highly qualified employees and need them in numbers. Our workers need to be the best in the world to give us our competitive edge. BMO Harris Bank Market Manager James Duff cited the U.S. worker's productivity as being as much as eight times as high as in China. If you have the aptitude and interest, manufacturing remains a strong and rewarding career choice.

Not sure if manufacturing is right for you? Waubonsee offers assistance in deciding on a career path through career classes, workshops, career inventories and counseling. We also offer financial assistance. As part of our Brighter Futures initiative, the Waubonsee Community College Foundation established a unique scholarship. These scholarships provide up to $500 toward the cost of Workforce Development courses at the college. The application process is short, allowing individuals quick access to the training they can utilize right away in a variety of industries including manufacturing. We have also just launched an additional eight Workforce Solutions Scholarships ranging from $500 to $2000 awards.

Spring registration is under way, so now is the time to explore a career in manufacturing.

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