When Wheeling High School principal Laz Lopez took the reigns in 2007, he immediately went to work on revamping curriculum to emphasize career pathways for a 21st century economy.
Not everyone got on board, however, particularly when it came to building a modern manufacturing lab in the midst of a recession.
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"Some community members said, 'Why are you spending money on that? Manufacturing is dead in the U.S.,'" Lopez recalled.
That, local industry and education leaders say, is a misperception that needs to be abandoned if there's any hope of filling the 80,000 manufacturing jobs currently open in Illinois alone.
To catch up with what many are calling a manufacturing Renaissance -- economic activity in the sector expanded in May for the 34th consecutive month, according to the Institute for Supply Management -- Harper College is partnering with more than 70 manufacturers in its district.
The Palatine community college this fall will launch an Advanced Manufacturing program allowing students to, in as few as 18 months, earn specialized certifications, complete a paid internship and prepare for either a career or four-year institution.
"We have educated and trained around an economy that no longer exists, and we're still figuring out how to catch up to the one that is here and emerging," Harper President Ken Ender said. "We think this will make a difference with respect to the kinds of pipelines we can supply to the manufacturers in the district."
Harper officials and local manufacturing leaders will make an official announcement Wednesday morning at Elk Grove Village's Acme Industries, a leader in precision machining of complex parts for large-scale original equipment manufacturers since 1948.
The program begins with students taking 16 credit hours en route to a general Manufacturing Production Certificate.
Then, students select from a field of specialization including mechatronics/automation, precision machining, metal fabrication and supply chain management/logistics.
Next comes the step Harper officials hope prospective students find especially attractive: a three-month paid internship related to their field.
Acme Industries CEO Warren Young and Schaumburg-based Nation Pizza and Foods COO Mike Alagna were charged with recruiting willing business partners for the new program.
They got nearly 50 manufacturing companies to commit to providing more than 70 internships, a task they found surprisingly simple.
"We can't continue the manufacturing Renaissance if we don't have a pipeline of people who can come in," Young said. "You can't put someone without credentials in front of a $500,000 machine and say, 'Here, run this.'"
After interning, students will return to the classroom and complete two or three certificates in their specialized field. Harper officials say students can then, if they choose, complete an associate's of applied science degree and pursue a bachelor's degree.
Ender said one advantage to the program's progression is that students get real-life experience on the floor early in the process. He said officials wanted to avoid a model similar to many education programs, where budding teachers get into the classroom toward the end for their training, only to find out they don't enjoy being around kids.
"It's an opportunity to find out if this person is a good fit," Ender said.
Ender said the program's format stems from a summit Harper hosted last October with about 150 representatives of not only the manufacturing industry, but also policy groups and secondary school systems.
Wheeling and the other feeder high schools are working to align their curriculum and spark interest in manufacturing.
Ender said students could begin to earn credit while still in high school.
He also sees the program drawing in displaced workers and veterans, many of whom already have experience with mechanics and electronics.
The stakeholders in Harper's Advanced Manufacturing program acknowledge the challenges ahead.
It could be difficult, for example, to find 70-plus interested students given the largely-held belief that manufacturing jobs aren't returning to the U.S., or that it can't be a career that provides a good living.
In the meantime, local manufacturers will continue their struggle to fill job vacancies with qualified workers.
"There's a real need to make sure this happens, not only for our (local) companies, but for the U.S. more and more as manufacturing comes back," Nation Pizza's Alagna said.