Manufacturers want schools to ‘bridge gap’ in Lake County
Vernon Hills 4/11/12 U.S. Representative Robert Dold speaks on the topic of job growth and education during a discussion on "Bridging the Gap Between Education and Industry" at Learning Resources in Vernon Hills on Wednesday, April 11, 2012. | Ruthie Hauge ~ Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 21, 2012 8:21AM
Even with high unemployment, Rick Woldenberg still has a hard time finding skilled workers for certain position in his company.
Woldenberg, CEO of Learning Resources, a leading manufacturer of educational materials and learning toys based in Vernon Hills, said finding qualified employees for technical jobs such as engineering and computer positions can be a challenge. “We had difficulty filling a job for a plant manager position for months,” he said. “With high unemployment, you think it would be easy to fill those positions, but it can be difficult finding people.”
While the national employment rate hovering around 8.2 percent, many good-paying manufacturing jobs are out still there and educators and manufacturers need to “bridge the gap” to provide skilled workers for those jobs, according to officials at a business conference sponsored by U.S. Rep. Robert Dold in Vernon Hills last week.
Dold, R-10th, spoke at the business conference attended by approximately 100 business and school officials at the Learning Resources warehouse facility.
“I think it’s absolutely critical and vital we prepare our students for jobs in the 21st century,” said Dold.
Although Illinois has lost about 340,000 manufacturing jobs over the past decade, Dold said manufacturing still remains strong in the 10th Congressional District. He said there are 84,000 manufacturing-related jobs in the 10th District, the largest number of manufacturing jobs of any congressional district in the country.
‘Can’t find people’
“Manufacturers have openings,” he said. “They have jobs available. They can’t find people with the skills or interest in the jobs that are available.”
To help bridge the skills’ gap, Dold said schools must work to expand STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum so interested students are prepared for potential job opportunities in those fields.
In addition to having more position openings, manufacturing jobs tend to be higher-paying than most service jobs, according to Ron Bullock, chairman of Bison Gear & Engineering Corp. in St. Charles, and past chairman of the Illinois Manufacturing Association. Research suggests the average manufacturing job pays about $77,000 a year, compared to about $55,000 on average in the service industry, he said.
Many manufacturers are having a hard time filling jobs for positions such as mechanics and engineers, Bullock said. “We need a talent pipeline for skilled manufacturing,” he said.
Richard Haney, vice president for educational affairs at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, said one of the biggest impediments employers say they face in hiring new employees is the lack of access to a highly skilled workforce.
The college has about 40 career advisory committees made up of local employers that provide advice to college officials regarding curriculum offerings and programs that best meet the needs of the local economy and job market, Haney said. He said the college also offers programs in nanotechnology, laser technology and other high-tech courses to prepare students who are interested in manufacturing jobs.
“As educators, it is our responsibility to work with manufacturers to create a pipeline of skilled workers,” he said.
Local high schools say they are working to provide more technical offerings to address the skills gap that exists in manufacturing.
Anthony Kroll, director of curriculum and instruction at Mundelein High School, said the district’s curriculum is being revised to provide more Career Technical Education offerings in fields such as manufacturing and engineering.
“We want to make sure our curriculum and instruction revolve around the development of 21st century job skills,” he said.
Kroll said the district has been working on a new STEM curriculum that it plans to unveil starting in 2013-2014 school year. “It’s obvious that there’s a need on the part of manufacturers for skilled labor,” he said.
Prentiss Lea, superintendent of Community High School District 128, which includes Libertyville and Vernon Hills high schools, attended the conference on manufacturing last week. He said one of the presenters at the conference indicated there about 600,000 manufacturing job openings nationwide and educators and manufacturers need to work together to provide interested students with the necessary skills for those positions.
“Is there an opportunity for young people to contribute and make a good living in these positions? The answer is yes,” he said.
Both Libertyville and Vernon Hills high schools offer a number of technology related offerings such as engineering design, graphic design, workworking and electronics. Libertyville High School has also started a program called Lead The Way, a pre-engineering programs for students who are interested in pursuing careers or college education in engineering-related fields. The program has two classes and will be adding two more over the next two years, according to Debbie Kellum, applied arts supervisor at LHS.