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This Is What Closing the Skills Gap Can Look Like

Chicago, like so many cities in the U.S., has jobs that need filling, and would-be workers who need the skills to build careers. A must-read article from Chicago’s WBEZ dives deep into how community organizations like the Jane Addams Resource Corp, our longtime partner and manager of a LISC-backed Bridges to Career Opportunities program, connect people with the technical and soft skills needed to land, and grow in, good, 21st-century manufacturing jobs.

The excerpt below was originally published:
The Manufacturing Mismatch
By Esther Yoon-Ji Kang, WBEZ 91.5 Chicago

On a sunny Tuesday morning in August, a yellow school bus arrived at a squat, red-brick building in northwest suburban Schaumburg. Five men stepped out, one by one, and walked into the offices of the Technology & Manufacturing Association.

The men were trainees with West Side Forward, a nonprofit trying to revitalize the West Side of Chicago. The group, based in the city’s Austin neighborhood, buses trainees to Schaumburg at least once a week to receive manufacturing training and instruction. 

“They treat me real great — they taught me everything,” said Marcus Wallace, 36. “I didn’t know none of this before, until I came here. They made me use my brain.”

Before he enrolled in the work readiness program and started classes at the Technology & Manufacturing Association (TMA), Wallace said he was “on the streets, being a nobody.”

At TMA, a trainer works with Wallace and others from the West Side group to finish their final projects, a block of metal carved with a star on one side and the Chicago Blackhawks logo on the other. Completing the project earns the trainees a National Institute for Metalworking Skills certificate — a credential that they can take to any metalworking employer in the United States.

The suburban locations of today’s manufacturers make them hard to reach, the industry’s technological advances require greater skills, and manufacturing’s fading presence has diminished the industry’s attractiveness to modern youth.

Connecting workers to manufacturing jobs is a lot harder today than it was 50 years ago. Manufacturing is no longer what it once was in Chicago. Many of the industry’s low-skilled jobs have moved abroad, while others just grew obsolete with technological advances. Several companies also moved to the suburbs.

Still, hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs have remained in the region. But those jobs may seem like a world away from many communities on Chicago’s South and West sides that relied heavily upon the industry decades ago.

The suburban locations of today’s manufacturers make them hard to reach, the industry’s technological advances require greater skills, and manufacturing’s fading presence has diminished the industry’s attractiveness to modern youth.

“Manufacturing is not dying,” said Dan Swinney, executive director of Manufacturing Renaissance. “It’s vibrant. It can remain. It can be rebuilt as a foundation for our city or for our country.”

Swinney founded his group in 1982 to address many of the plant closings in the Chicago area.

Today, unemployment is high in many communities on the South and West sides. According to a WBEZ analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, during the five-year period ending in 2017, unemployment surpassed 30 percent in Englewood and Fuller Park on the South Side. And it stood at about 20 percent in North Lawndale and West Garfield Park on the West Side.

Bridges to Career Opportunities

The BCO initiative blends train with financial coaching so clients can take the reins of their economic and professional lives.

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Experts tout manufacturing as one of the few industries available to people without college degrees that pay family-sustaining wages and offer authentic career paths. They have suggested that linking the South and West side residents with the ever-evolving manufacturing industry could help revive their communities — while at the same time provide companies with the employees they’ve struggled to find.

Industry advocates say manufacturers are experiencing a workforce shortage. “Every company we talked to, that is the biggest challenge — finding the talent they need,” Swinney said. 

According to a 2018 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute and the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, there were more than 60,000 manufacturing job postings in the Chicago area.
 

‘They can’t get to the job’

In early 2010, Adonis Summerville had just been fired from his job at Walmart and was crashing on his brother’s couch. 

One day, while on a CTA bus with his baby daughter, he ran into a former high-school classmate from the West Side, where he grew up. The classmate asked Summerville, “What are you doing with your life?” He suggested that Summerville check out a training program at Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC), a workforce development organization in the Ravenswood neighborhood on the North Side. 

That week, Summerville applied to the program and got in. Just about a month after he started training, he was offered a job in northwest suburban Streamwood. 

“The commute was something else,” Summerville remembered. “It was an overnight shift, and I didn’t have a car.” Just to get to work from his former apartment in Logan Square, Summerville said it took him almost four hours each way, including a two-mile walk.

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