IMEC is a resource that can be used to help manufacturers solve problems.
Acknowledging that manufacturers often don’t like to ask for help, Schwartz said IMEC has been an incredible partner, helping Trim-Tex with a variety of resources. For example, IMEC conducted an employee engagement survey to foster an open, positive work environment. A workforce training program was subsequently developed that focused on educating managers to effectively supervise and lead their teams. Employees participate in skills training to relieve managers of some of their responsibilities. “We learned what we didn’t know, and what we had to know,” Schwartz said.
Sharing and learning from each other’s experiences is what makes a partnership IMEC so valuable. Attracting and retaining workers is another top priority for the manufacturing industry, which also makes IMEC’s partnership even stronger.
The future success of Illinois’ manufacturing industry depends on manufacturers developing strong partnerships with organizations such as IMEC, SomerCor, Intersect Illinois and Lake County Partners. These relationships look at the economic well-being of individual manufacturers and entire nations.
“In manufacturing, spending has to be planned and disciplined.”
– Bryan Schwartz, President, Trim-Tex
Experts also say a skilled workforce is needed, and collaboration is one way manufacturers can succeed in this challenge.
“The need for labor is a pain point,” said Manny Flores, president and CEO of SomerCor, a nonprofit small business lender. It specializes in SBA 504 loans for owner-occupied commercial real estate and fixtures. Other states are competing with Illinois for manufacturers; a skilled workforce is essential to keeping manufacturing companies in Illinois, Flores said.
Investments in technology can help attract and retain younger workers—a conundrum facing employers today. Tech-savvy Millennials and members of Generation Z want to work in a technology-enabled environment.
At the same time, technology can help create manufacturing jobs that are more interesting and better paying than traditional factory jobs. “Automation doesn’t kill jobs, it creates better jobs,” said Kevin Considine, president and CEO of Lake County Partners, an economic development organization.
“Careers in manufacturing are more exciting than ever,” Sainati says, describing the machine operators on his shop floor running $500,000 worth of computerized CNC equipment. “It’s exciting.”
Workforce of the future
Technology can also be used to design career paths for employees. Manufacturing leaders agree that this approach helps position manufacturing as a profession to build a strong workforce and keep companies in Illinois.
Instead of using industry recruiters, Sainati’s company hires entry-level employees with on-the-job training. Employees can work their way up from mechanics to programmers and eventually to management positions. “It always comes back to people,” Senati said. “We can patiently develop our team.”
Manufacturing and economic development executives are helping to change the stereotypical image of manufacturing to attract younger workers. Illinois’ manufacturing workforce has been shrinking, but growing again. “We’re seeing more and more young people choosing manufacturing,” said Lake County Partners’ Considine. The organization attracts and supports businesses in Lake County, IL, organizing maker bus tours for high school counselors. The program has had an impact on career opportunities in the showcase manufacturing industry.
Another program gives high school students tours of manufacturing facilities. STEM programs, now commonplace in schools, are teaching students the skills they need to succeed in today’s manufacturing environment. “We have to connect with the education system,” SomerCor’s Flores said. “School districts have to be part of the discussion.”
“We’re a connector. That’s our job.”
– Kevin Considine, President/CEO, Lake County Partners
While old-fashioned shop classes may be outdated, many high schools now have makerspaces. These labs are equipped with 3D printers, laser cutters and other state-of-the-art tools. “The education system has been transformed,” said Ashley Moy, Cast21’s chief executive. The company makes orthopedic models using an open grid filled with fast-drying resin.
Industry needs to be linked to school projects, Moy said. Cast21 is “distressed for people”, she said. The company even had to use a recruiter to find a high school intern. They also found a grant to help open the door to partnerships with education providers. The company has also changed its brand image to emphasize the purpose behind its work, which is important to younger employees.
Manufacturing leaders stress the importance of connecting and building partnerships with workforce development ecosystems. “We’re a connector,” Lake County Partners’ Considine said. “That’s our job.”
Community colleges are working closely with area manufacturers. Lake County College recently opened an advanced technology center to train workers. The new innovation program is based in an old Lowe’s store in Gurnee, which has been completely renovated. The first students arrived this fall.
Looking ahead, executives expressed some concern about the broader economic outlook. “It was a bit overcast,” Schwartz said. But they also take note of the many advantages Illinois has to offer, from natural resources like Lake Michigan to some of the world’s greatest universities and a deep talent pool.
Boulay highlighted the importance of manufacturing to the country’s future and the critical role that thought leaders will play in creating a collective vision for the industry in the years to come. “While thinking about the future can be challenging, it is an important foundation for developing solid strategies and investments,” he said.
Grant Programs Available for Suburban Cook County Manufacturers:
The Cook County Manufacturing Reinvention Grant Program provides more than 300 grants to support manufacturers in suburban Cook County as they continue to recover and reinvent. Project offerings are based on survey responses from more than 1,000 local manufacturers who identified their top priorities and challenges posed by the pandemic.
To learn more about the program or to apply, visit: www.imec.org/ccmr