College of Lake County is making a push to link students and graduates of its high-tech manufacturing programs to companies having problems finding skilled workers.
One reason Grayslake-based CLC and other suburban community colleges are getting on the manufacturing bandwagon is the work has changed dramatically. It's now more computers than elbow grease, CLC President Jerry Weber said.
"All the workers are dressed just business casual, some of them have blue jeans on, some don't," Weber said of a manufacturing business he recently visited. "They're essentially running computers, creating machinery and the parts. It's very different from the kind of skills and operations that people still have a little in their mind, I think."
Beginning in October, officials plan to formally introduce the CLC Manufacturing Skills Network. With assistance from the Lake County Partners economic development agency, the college will try to connect employers having trouble finding qualified workers with students and graduates from the school's manufacturing programs.
CLC's vice president for educational affairs, Richard Haney, said six major manufacturing-related technician programs are now offered at the college. The manufacturing curriculum and equipment for classes have been upgraded to coincide with the effort to hook into local businesses.
"We continue to see and hear folks say, 'I can't find workers,'" Haney said. "And so we want to at least let them know, here's an opportunity for you to find those workers."
A recent Manufacturing Institute report shows U.S. companies can't fill an estimated 600,000 jobs in the advanced manufacturing sector. Regionally, about 12,100 manufacturers employ 580,000 workers, according to a report issued this year by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
CMAP's report says there must be a strengthening of coordination between industry, educators and training providers to match skills development with industry needs. CLC and other suburban community colleges have been calling attention to the problem and touting initiatives to fill the skills gap in the manufacturing industry.
Similar to what CLC is pursuing, College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn has established partnerships with local employers and professional organizations in an attempt to bring qualified, trained candidates to fill a wide range of available manufacturing positions.
COD President Robert Breuder compared what he said is a negative image about manufacturing jobs to his continuing fight against inaccurate perceptions that community college is a second-choice institution for higher education.
"The main reason for the ongoing skills gap in this industry stems, at least in part, from outdated ideas that these jobs are dead-end, unpleasant or low-paying. It's this idea and the widely reported outsourcing of manufacturing jobs that have caused people to look to other industries for employment. That's truly unfortunate," Breuder said.
Harper College in Palatine also is on board with the push for manufacturing careers. Since the fall 2012 semester, Harper has offered programs to prepare students in as little as 18 months to be advanced manufacturing professionals, with opportunities for paid internships at area employers.
At College of Lake County, Haney said he's particularly enthused about the mechatronics program that was launched last spring. The field combines mechanics, electronics and computer technologies that workers use to help design, install, repair and maintain industrial equipment, along with a variety of appliances used at homes and businesses.
"Mechatronics is really a new and emerging field," Haney said. "It used to be, if you work for a manufacturer, you would go in and you were the electrician, you were the (computerized numeric control) operator, you were the mechanic. Now, they're beginning to combine all of these skills together to really create this mechatronics degree program."
Gary Morgan, dean emeritus for CLC's engineering, math and physical science department, said successful students will receive a one-year mechatronics certificate and be qualified for entry-level positions.
"Some examples of mechatronics might be something as simple as when you go into a restroom and you have an automated faucet that turns on and off when you wash your hands," Morgan said. "That's a simple form of a mechatronics system. Something more complicated might be an ATM."
Machine tool trades, electrical engineering technology and computerized numerical controls are among the other manufacturing-related opportunities at CLC.
Lake County Partners President/CEO Michael Stevens said there will be significant economic development opportunities locally through CLC's initiative. The organization is Lake County government's business retention and attraction arm.
Stevens said he expects small and mid-sized manufacturing businesses that don't have large recruitment budgets or much in-house training would benefit by tapping into CLC. The college's programs could be used to attract and retain jobs for Lake County, he said.
"This is a great opportunity," Stevens said. "We're trying to collaborate (with CLC) as best we can."
Over the past two years, CLC has made a financial commitment to the manufacturing-related programs, which, an unofficial head count shows, have attracted 184 students for the current fall semester. The total investment of $565,587 over the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years came from a combination of grants and college funds.
CLC plans to kick off the Manufacturing Skills Network in October -- when the state recognizes the industry with a special month -- through unveiling a special Web page and a telephone number for interested employers. Haney said a manufacturing summit hosted by the college is likely in January or February.
Haney said new programs would be launched or customized for training purposes as needed, based on requests from manufacturers. Plans also call for open entry -- allowing students to enter midsemester -- to benefit those who are unemployed or want new skills for good-paying manufacturing jobs, he added.
"If you lose your job, it doesn't happen at the start of a semester," Haney said. "It can happen at any time."