Staying on top of it: Community colleges training students for high-tech manufacturing jobs

  • Smithfield Food apprentices Jaime Suarez, up front, and Swan Tuang work with a height gauge during an industrial manufacturing class at Elgin Community College.

    Smithfield Food apprentices Jaime Suarez, up front, and Swan Tuang work with a height gauge during an industrial manufacturing class at Elgin Community College. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Instructor Justin Gieraltowski, center left, works with Smithfield Food apprentice students in his industrial manufacturing class at Elgin Community College.

    Instructor Justin Gieraltowski, center left, works with Smithfield Food apprentice students in his industrial manufacturing class at Elgin Community College. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin Community College is building a new manufacturing center that will house the college's HVAC, mechatronics, welding and other related programs near the east entrance of its campus, where a Colonial Café used to be.

    Elgin Community College is building a new manufacturing center that will house the college's HVAC, mechatronics, welding and other related programs near the east entrance of its campus, where a Colonial Café used to be. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/14/2022 10:25 AM

As demand for manufacturing workers grows and jobs continue to become more technical, community colleges are revamping their programs to ensure they stay on top of industry changes.

The College of Lake County kicked off the school year with a new advanced technology center housed in a former Lowe's store. It positions the college to provide training for 40% of the county's skilled workforce in the next five years, officials said.

 

In Kane County, Elgin Community College is planning a $55 million manufacturing center that will provide state-of-the-art classroom space for HVAC-R, mechatronics, industrial maintenance, energy management, computer numerical controls and welding programs. It will be built on land near the college's entrance that previously was home to a Colonial Café.

"The manufacturing industry is undergoing a transformation that looks very much like the industrial revolution ... and the big driver of that is technology," said Cathy Taylor, ECC dean of the sustainability, business and career technologies division. "Employers need people who are trained for these high-skilled, in-demand jobs. Part of our goal with this manufacturing center is to ensure that we can provide that training."

Across Illinois, some 660,000 people hold jobs in the manufacturing industry with an average yearly salary of more than $80,000, said Sarah Hartwick, vice president of education and workforce policy for the Illinois Manufacturers' Association.

Many jobs, however, remain unfilled, Hartwick said, with 800,000 jobs in the field open nationwide.

"The No. 1 call I get from IMA members is we need people now, and we need them to have the skills to work," she said.

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Across the suburbs, community colleges are addressing that need by providing the training needed to fill positions at manufacturing and distribution centers. Automotive, welding, HVAC-R (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration) and other technical programs are growing in popularity with several community colleges seeing increased enrollment year over year.

The welding program at ECC, for example, started this school year with about a dozen students on waitlists for various classes.

In some cases, the demand for skilled workers has led to students' being recruited for employment before they complete their program.

"It can be challenging to keep them in the program because employers need them right away," said Joanne Ivory, dean for career and technical programs at Harper College in Palatine.

Ivory said the college works with employers to ensure that students who are hired still complete the program to earn their certifications or credentials.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Automation has changed much of the perception of manufacturing jobs as dirty and dangerous, Hartwick and other community college officials said.

Instead of needing people to manually package items, the industry needs workers trained to run computerized automation systems that can package goods, keep products cool or assemble them.

"There's still a segment of the population that views manufacturing as dirty and old, and dark," Taylor said. "It's not. It's clean, it's high-tech and it allows people to engage in a sector that drives our economy."

Community college programs offer high school graduates a career path without a heavy load of college debt, while their technical courses and certifications provide a way for industry workers to get trained in the latest advances or earn additional credentials.

"The importance of current technical training couldn't be more front and center," said Marc Battista, association vice president for workforce development and dean of business and career technologies at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines.

Battista said many employers see community colleges as a way to keep their employees' skills sharp on the latest technologies. Many suburban community colleges are working with industry leaders to develop the curricula and programs to ensure students are getting the necessary skills, training for the jobs employers seek to fill and staying on top of trends.

Even as ECC moves to build its new manufacturing center, Taylor said, many of the jobs students will be training for in that facility don't currently exist.

Part of the college's role will be to evolve with the industry, she said.

"The technology is changing so fast that a company has not even identified what they might need five, six or seven years from now," she said.

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