Here's who can fill Chicago's manufacturing needs

Across the Chicago region, manufacturers are feeling better than they have in years. Orders are increasing, employment is growing and there's an increasing recognition that the quality provided by local precision manufacturers is a better deal than offshoring production. But there's one big hangup: Companies don't have the workers they need to complete manufacturing's renaissance.

A new report we co-authored, to be released this week, finds that nearly 1 in 3 workers in manufacturing in the metro area is over age 55. Although many companies have retained older, skilled workers, many more positions remain unfilled. Over the past year, there were 58,000 open manufacturing jobs, behind only health care, finance and professional services in need. In 2017, manufacturers posted two jobs for every person they hired.

The opposite side of this coin is Chicago's segregated economic recovery and history of unequal opportunity. The unemployment rate in 2016 for blacks and Latinos in the region was 14.6 and 6.9 percent, respectively, compared to just 4.1 percent for whites. Among people 20 to 24 years old, more than 1 in 3 African-Americans and 1 in 5 Latinos were out of school and work.

Black and Latino communities, for whom a high percentage of their labor force was in manufacturing, were severely hurt by deindustrialization, and in some cases have not fully recovered. These communities stand to gain immensely from remedying the workforce mismatches plaguing Chicago's manufacturing sector.

Many manufacturing jobs require only a high school education or vocational training. No advanced degree is required for the thousands of open front-line production and repair jobs.

Moreover, organizations that work with black and brown individuals with criminal records find factory owners to be among the most receptive employers to their clients.

Indeed, we are already seeing the growth of model programs in the region that are working to bridge these divides. Organizations like Manufacturing Renaissance, OAI and Jane Addams Resource Corp., for example, provide coaching and support for workers and operate training programs where students can earn metalworking credentials.

Programs like these are not enough on their own, however, as they reach hundreds, not thousands, needed. We should be pushing for legislative initiatives like that spearheaded in the Illinois House by Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, which would allocate $36 million to school districts statewide for manufacturing training programs. And we should make a more inclusive, robust factory sector a priority of regional, not just local, economic policy. That's what the Chicago Transit Authority did in ensuring that its next purchase of rail cars would lead to a new assembly plant on the South Side, complete with well-paying, union jobs, filled by local residents.

There's also the issue of geographic mismatch, as factory jobs tend to be out of reach of public transit and miles away from many African-American and Latino communities, as well as issues of the scaling back of critical vocational high schools and discrimination within firms, as many factory owners promote white workers over their black and brown peers.

All these challenges will need to be overcome. And they can be.

Chicago's factories have long driven opportunity for our diverse population, attracting countless black and Latino families to the region since early last century. The crossroads facing Chicago manufacturing today create a unique win-win opportunity for communities and industry alike and a chance to recapture some of that historic role. It can make Chicago both proud of its manufacturing heritage and excited for its manufacturing future.

Teresa Cordova is director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Andrew Stettner is senior fellow at the Century Foundation's Bernard Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative. Along with the institute's Matthew Wilson, they are the authors of "Revitalizing Manufacturing and Expanding Opportunities for Chicago's Black and Latino Communities."

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