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COD Working to Fill the Gap Between Workers and Employers

By Mike McKissack

Despite high national and local unemployment in recent years, the manufacturing industry has been experiencing a lack of qualified employees. College of DuPage, in partnership with local employers and professional organizations, is working to fill the skills gap in manufacturing, training qualified candidates to fill a wide range of available jobs in this industry.

"Much of the problem in terms of a labor gap stems from outdated ideas about careers in manufacturing," said Manufacturing Program Coordinator Jim Filipek "Unfortunately many people believe that the manufacturing industry is a dead end, that the jobs are unsavory or low-paying. This is an extremely false notion. It's this idea and the widely reported outsourcing of manufacturing jobs that have caused people to increasingly look to other industries as choices for sustainable careers."

National statistics don't lie, Filipek noted.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that manufacturing in the greater Chicago area experienced the second-largest employment gain (2.8 percent) of any industry, with only professional and business services reporting greater expansion at 3.7 percent. According to Choose DuPage, the manufacturing sector of the economy in DuPage County is the fifth most important employment sector, featuring the fourth highest wages and benefits. The Conference Board, an independent, global business and research association, also reports an increase from just over 82,000 job openings in 2009 to over 208,000 in Aug. 2012.

Tessa Bergmans, Human Resources manager at Wheeling-based manufacturer Dynomax Inc., sees a bright future for workers entering the industry.

"Now is a great time to be in manufacturing. New jobs in manufacturing require much higher skills than in the past and consequently, offer higher pay and better working conditions," Bergmans said. "In addition to exciting technological developments in the industry, there are also many people retiring, which ensures a growing need for qualified workers."

Dynomax is one of more than a dozen local manufacturing firms that has partnered with College of DuPage in an effort to prepare students and workers for employment and advancement through apprenticeship programs, grants and tuition reimbursement for employees. Representatives of these companies hold positions on the advisory board for COD's Manufacturing Technology program, which keeps the program up-to-date with emerging technologies and evolving skill sets required by employers.

College of DuPage is also working hard to raise awareness and change the perspectives of people who have outdated, inaccurate ideas about careers in manufacturing.

"Our team believes strongly that a piece of the regional economic recovery and the financial independence of our alumnae is a direct result of the preparation that occurs in our labs and classrooms," said Donna Stewart, Dean of Business and Technology.

Recently, in conjunction with DuPage County Workforce Board, WorkNet DuPage and area high schools, the College hosted a Manufacturing Career Expo for nearly 200 high school students and 20 employers. College of DuPage is also part of a community college consortium that was awarded a grant resulting in more than $500,000 in funds to upgrade the welding and manufacturing labs and address entrepreneurship interests and credit for prior learning in manufacturing.

"We are also actively engaged with local employers to meet their unique training and educational requirements and are customizing offerings to meet their needs," Stewart said.

Downers Grove-based Flexco, a manufacturer of conveyor belt components, is another company that has partnered with College of DuPage. The manufacturer, which makes conveyor belt components, offers in-house certifications through a partnership with College of DuPage. Flexco training specialist Sarah Schindlbeck is pleased with the results.

"We're thrilled with the manufacturing program at College of DuPage. The hands-on training the students receive allows them to immediately apply what they've learned on the job," said Schindlbeck. "The program at COD brings a greater awareness of issues like quality and safety which is incredibly important in manufacturing."

Manufacturing Program Coordinator Filipek said he is witnessing an increasing demand for skilled workers in the manufacturing industry.

"Last year 65 companies contacted us looking for workers," he said. "This year it's over 70, most looking to fill multiple positions."

According to Filipek, the success of the Manufacturing Technology program at College of DuPage can be summed up by a few key factors. In addition to the partnerships with local companies, the faculty is comprised of professionals who are currently working in the industry. This hands-on expertise ensures that the program stays on top of the most important and up-to-date developments in manufacturing. Equally important is the practical experience that is at the heart of the program curriculum.

"Students don't spend much time sitting at desks," said Filipek. "Our program is very hands-on. They are working on state-of-the-art machines and gaining real-life experience that is actively sought after and rewarded by employers."

Just as important as training new workers, manufacturing education enables current workers to upgrade their skills and employability. Like many others, long-term punch-press operator Russell Kleppe found himself unemployed at the outset of the great recession. Through Trade Readjustment Allowance, a government fund for workers displaced by outsourcing, Kleppe was able to attend classes at College of DuPage. After completing the program he ended up doing the same work he had previously, but his education gave him the competitive edge he needed to land a job.

"The job market was not very good at that time. My employer specifically said I was being hired because of my continuing education and my longevity at my previous job," he said. "I will be forever grateful to Mr. Filipek and College of DuPage for the opportunity to gain new skills and re-enter the workforce."

The Manufacturing Technology program at College of DuPage offers degrees in Automated Manufacturing Systems, Drafting and Design, Manufacturing Technology and Manufacturing Engineering Technology. Students may also earn certificates in additional disciplines such as Computer-Aided Design and Manufacturing Skills Standards.

Click here for more information about the Manufacturing Technology program at College of DuPage.