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Manufacturing Skills Go Regional ... and Personal

Khalelah Ervin has been bounced around by the Great Recession long enough to know you can’t be sure about much of anything these days.

Except for one thing:  “I know when I get out of here, I’ll be a CNC machinist. I know that.” 

“Here” is the manufacturing skills program operated by the Jane Addams Resource Corp. on Chicago’s North Side.  A “CNC machinist” is someone who can set up and operate a hugely sophisticated device that churns out complex metal parts with speed and precision.

CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control. A CNC-qualified machinist can expect to earn at least $15-an-hour to start with full benefits – a wage that can double after a brief apprenticeship period.

One thing Ervin may not know, however, is that she’s at the cutting edge of what Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s top economic advisors are calling “Strategy No. 1” for creating economic growth and jobs. 

“Become a leading advanced manufacturing hub” is the first of 10 primary recommendations made by World Business Chicago in its 2012 “Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs” commissioned by Emanuel. And by “advanced manufacturing,” the panel of experts means exactly the sort of thing Ervin is learning to do.

She won’t be bolting together parts on some assembly line. That kind of semi-skilled manufacturing is still migrating overseas. Instead she’ll be programming computer-guided machine-tools that spin and cut blank steel into precision parts with tolerances as small as three thousandths (.003) of an inch.

A growth sector
Sure, manufacturing has taken a hit over the past three decades. The sector was hit again during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and many people think it’s all but disappeared.  

JARC Executive Director Guy Loudon leads sector-aligned training of the sort that World Business Chicago has recommended.

John McCarron

Not so. The Chicago region, with its skilled-but-aging metal-bending workforce and matchless transportation infrastructure, has clung stubbornly to high value-added enterprises such as computer-assisted machine tooling. We still make the machines that make the machines.

The WBC report found that manufacturing still adds $54 billion-a-year to the Chicago area’s GRP or gross regional product – second only to real estate sales and development.  And while only 5 percent of the region’s workforce is engaged in making stuff, momentum in “advanced manufacturing” is powering a 3.3 percent annual growth rate -- a pace exceeding that of the region’s overall economy. 

“A renaissance is anticipated in manufacturing toward more advanced products and processes,” the WBC experts predicted. This will entail “adoption of innovative, cutting-edge science and technology, usually executed by relatively high-skilled workers who receive above-average wages.”

But therein lays a problem. Skilled older workers are retiring in droves and too few young workers have the desire or the preparation to take their place. Strange as it may seem, what with unemployment rates stubbornly high, area manufacturers have trouble finding entry-level workers with basic skills. 

Several education and training efforts have been launched recently. Among them are the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council (CMRC) which has partnered with Chicago Public Schools to create the Austin Polytechnic Academy on the Far West Side; and an expanded program in advanced manufacturing at Harper College in Palatine that’s funded in part by a recent $12.9 million grant from U.S. Department of Labor.

A working model
Doubtless those are worthy programs. But it may well be that the Jane Addams model comes closest to meeting the here-and-now needs of not only Chicago’s unskilled-but-eager-to-learn unemployed … but also area manufacturers scrambling for skilled help.

Trainer Daniel Sanders explains how to operate a computer-guided milling machine.

John McCarron

“The work we do at JARC is demand-driven,” explains Executive Director Guy Loudon. “We’re responsive to what’s going on in advanced manufacturing … and that’s true of our coursework, our hands-on-competencies and attainment of industry credentials.”

The centerpiece is JARC’s Careers in Manufacturing Program. It trains unemployed adults, including dropouts and ex-offenders, in CNC machining, welding and general manufacturing skills such as milling, punch press, forklift operation and, of course, safety. In 2012, 75 graduates were placed in good-paying jobs, many with name-brand manufacturers, from Navistar and Electro-Motive to Federal Mogul and Caterpillar. One-year retention rates approach 100 percent.

The key, says Loudon, is keeping in touch with what the market needs. One way JARC does this is by delivering some of its training to existing employees, either on-location at their plants or in JARC’s training facility at 4229 N. Honore St. in the Ravenswood Industrial Corridor. On-site training, in close collaboration with supervisors and foremen, helps keep JARC in touch with new machinery, new processes and, of course, new job openings.

“We have come to depend upon JARC for customized training,” said Gene Cottini, manager of training and development at S&C Electric, one of Chicago’s largest manufacturing employers. There are several organizations doing job training in the city, he said, “However there are none that compare with JARC in terms of effectiveness and positive impact on the community.”

A sector approach
Another key to success, said Loudon, is JARC’s early adoption of a “sector” approach to training – one that embraces the entire Chicago region as its service area but doesn’t try to be all things to all employers.

“So you favor some industries over others precisely because they offer family-sustaining career opportunities,” Loudon explained. “If you want to connect low-income people in low-income neighborhoods to the regional economy, you’ve got to invest in and align with the growth sectors of that economy.”

So JARC is sending its graduates, nearly all of who live in the city, as far west as Streamwood. Transportation is an issue, he admits, but once hired people tend to work it out, often with the help of the employer or co-workers.

JARC’s sectoral thinking anticipates some of the latest economic development research on the evolution of industry “clusters” and their importance to regional economic growth.  Indeed, Loudon is one the business assistance professionals advising LISC Chicago and RW Ventures on their study – funded by the MacArthur Foundation – examining how clusters of companies might take mutual advantage of job training and the assets of Chicago neighborhoods.

But thinking beyond municipal boundaries is easier said than done. Local officials, especially city aldermen, tend to want recipients of city grants and loans to focus on local business needs and issues. Sending graduates off to factories in Elk Grove Village might not impress when a program like JARC applies for a city subsidy such as the Local Industrial Retention Initiative or a CDBG or TIF Works grant.

It helps, said Loudon, that nearly all JARC trainees are from the city, and that another wing of the organization focuses exclusively on industrial retention. JARC’s real estate subsidiary has developed business incubators, not just along the Ravenswood Corridor but as far west as its Carroll Street incubator in West Garfield Park.

The CWF component
Then there’s the human factor. Loudon argues that career development involves a lot more than being able to read a blueprint or operate high-tech machinery. So the non-profit was more than eager to bring into its portfolio one of LISC Chicago’s Centers for Working Families (CWF).

“All of our trainees are connected to CWF,” said Loudon. “Usually there’s a two-way street between someone losing their job and their life unraveling. One usually follows the other, or vice-versa. So you need a holistic strategy for people to put their lives back together.”

“Besides,” he said, “a lot of employers are using credit ratings. You go to a job interview and the interviewer says ‘Wow, you owe Best Buy $3,000 from 2008.’ Or, ‘Your car was repossessed.’ It gets to character … and how organized you are in your life.”

Trainee Khalelah Ervin, also a client of the Center for Working Families at JARC, measures a practice block.

John McCarron

So all students in the JARC pipeline get coached on family budgeting skills, debt avoidance, available income supports such as SNAP food assistance, even opening a bank account with direct deposit to avoid check-cashing fees charged by currency exchanges. JARC’s CWF also encourages walk-ins from the neighborhood and provides them with general job prep and placement as well as financial counseling. Job-seekers also can hone their digital skills or scan “help wanted” listings in an adjoining Community Technology Center.

Khalelah’s story
Like a lot of incoming JARC trainees, she wasn’t ready to read a mechanical blueprint or compute fractions expressed as decimals. So Khalelah Ervin, a 30-year-old mom with five kids age 6 to 14, first had to take JARC’s “bridge” classroom sequence. That accomplished, she was now cutting and milling on JARC’s machine shop floor … and loving it. 

“A while back I lost my manufacturing job, and I miss it. It’s something I enjoy,” she says. “I took an office job, but it wasn’t the same. I had to get back to manufacturing.”

She credits JARC’s CWF with helping her roll over her old 401(k) savings plan and, more importantly, “keeping me from filing for bankruptcy. I had a lot of medical bills. It’s complicated.”

And so is precision machining. But there she was, slicing off a slab of hard blue wax and getting ready to practice the many cuts, mills, taps and chamfers that she’ll be required to do on her final exam in a few weeks … when she’ll do it in steel.

“Jobs can come and go,” she said of her developing craft, “but this is something I’ll always have.”

More information:

Michael Slezak, JARC, 773-728-9769,

Sheryl Morris, JARC CWF, 773-728-9769,

Ricki Lowitz, LISC Chicago, 312-422-9559,


Posted in Economic Development, Financial Opportunities, Albany Park


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