Why Wheeling High School has ramped up its manufacturing program
Wheeling High School students huddled over damaged robots, the lasting remnants of a bygone battle that tested their engineering and design prowess in a "Battlebots" competition.
Others operated a milling machine, cutting metal with sharp precision.
Some already have experience with precision cutting. They produced parts for NASA to be used as handrails for astronauts on the International Space Station. The engineers at NASA demand the aluminum alloy and stainless steel hardware be within 1/1000th of an inch of specified dimensions.
"If we had a problem, we had to figure out why without the people at NASA," junior Daniel Sobas said. "It was pretty much us trying to fix it."
This problem-solving was on full display Monday as the students showcased the school's manufacturing program to local business owners and school officials, including Illinois State Superintendent of Schools Tony Smith.
"The ability to problem solve is going to be more important than ever," Smith told students.
The school recently doubled the size of its manufacturing lab, an effort to meet high demand for skilled labor. And four new industrial robots are on the way, thanks in part to a $150,000 donation from HydraForce, a manufacturing company based in Lincolnshire.
The industrial robots represent the school's continuing effort to give students experience in automated technology. They're the same machines used by the U.S. Postal Service to sort mail and Wisconsin bratwurst makers use to pack meats displayed on grocery store shelves.
The school has even advertised its manufacturing and automated technology program as a pitch to attract Amazon's HQ2 second headquarters to the Northwest suburbs.
Yet even if Illinois doesn't lure the coveted online retail giant, plenty of local companies will need students with engineering and manufacturing experience. Wheeling has the fifth-highest manufacturing employment concentration in the state, trailing only Chicago, Elk Grove Village, Rockford and Elgin.
"We are making education not only relevant to our students, but making our school relevant to our community," Wheeling High School Principal Jerry Cook said.
Kevin Clay, the manager of manufacturer Sandvik Coromant in Schaumburg, told students the industry is expected to have a shortage of 85 million skilled laborers by 2020. Sandvik Coromant alone has about 290 job openings, he said.
"If someone tells me they can't find a job, it's unfortunate because they probably don't have the skill set for all the jobs that are out there," Clay said.