As the demand for manufacturing workers increases 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 state-of-the-art technology center housed in a former Lowe’s store. It positions the college to provide training for 40% of the county’s skilled workforce over 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 classrooms for HVAC-R, mechatronics, industrial maintenance, energy, computer numerical controls and welding programs. It will be built on land near the entrance to the college that previously housed a colonial café.
“The manufacturing industry is going through a transformation that looks a lot like the industrial revolution…and the main driver of that is technology,” said Cathy Taylor, dean of the sustainability, business and career technologies division of the ECC. “Employers need trained people for these high-skilled, in-demand jobs. Part of our goal with this manufacturing center is to make sure we can provide that training.”
In Illinois, some 660,000 people work in manufacturing jobs with an average annual salary of more than $80,000, said Sarah Hartwick, vice president of education and workforce policy. works for the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.
However, many jobs remain unfilled, Hartwick said, with 800,000 jobs in the field open nationwide.
“The No. 1 call I get from IMA members is that we need people now, and we need them with the skills to work,” she said.
In all suburbs, community colleges are meeting this need by providing the training needed to fill positions in manufacturing and distribution centers. Automotive, welding, HVAC-R (heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration) and other technical programs are gaining popularity, with several community colleges seeing year-over-year enrollment increases.
The welding program at ECC, for example, began this school year with a dozen students on waiting lists for different classes.
In some cases, the demand for skilled workers has resulted in the recruitment of students before they complete their program.
“It can be difficult to keep them in the program because employers need them right away,” said Joanne Ivory, dean of career and technical programs at Harper Community 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 degrees.
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 pack items, the industry needs trained workers to run computerized automation systems that can pack goods, keep products cool, or assemble them.
“There’s still a segment of the population that sees the industry 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 heavy college debt, while their technical courses and certifications offer industry workers a way to train for the latest advances or earn additional credentials. .
“The importance of today’s technical training couldn’t be more front and center,” said Marc Battista, the association’s vice president for workforce development and dean of business and technology. professionals at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines.
Battista said many employers see community colleges as a way to keep their employees’ skills up to date with the latest technology. Many suburban community colleges work with industry leaders to develop curricula and programs to ensure students gain the necessary skills, training for the jobs employers seek to fill, and stay aware of trends.
Even as ECC prepares to build its new manufacturing center, Taylor said, many of the jobs that students will train for at this facility do not currently exist.
Part of the college’s role will be to evolve with the industry, she said.
“Technology is changing so rapidly that a company hasn’t even identified what it might need in five, six or seven years,” she said.