By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
GODFREY — Educators say they are already thinking about the workforce of the future even as the region’s top economic development group pursues a campaign to link high school students to high-paying jobs.
Madison County Regional Superintendent Robert Daiber says efforts underway in local schools dovetail nicely with the just-announced marketing initiative by the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois and two local workforce development boards.
The campaign carries a two-pronged theme and is called, “Manufacturing Your Future/Craft Your Future, A Career that Pays in Southwestern Illinois.” It aims to educate high school students, parents, guidance counselors, principals and others about the high-paying jobs that are coming available in the area.
Some 1,500 job openings are expected in manufacturing in Southwestern Illinois in the next five years and an additional 1,200 jobs in the trades. Manufacturing careers in Madison and St. Clair counties offer average earnings of $80,000 a year.
Careers in the trades average almost $33 an hour plus benefits of $22 an hour, campaign supporters say.
The campaign was put together by the Madison-Bond and MidAmerica workforce development boards and the Leadership Council Manufacturing Steering Committee. It’s backed by some of the biggest employers in Metro East, among them Phillips66, SunCoke Energy, U.S. Steel and many others who have members on the committee.
Several college and regional educators are also on the committee, among them Regional Superintendent Daiber.
“Our office has been working to connect school district administrators with the manufacturing steering committee to make administrators aware of the significance of this, “ he told the Illinois Business Journal. “This group met with the superintendents last spring to begin talks. We’re concerned about maintenance of (vocational) programs to make sure that programs that exist are not cut, and looking at program development moving forward. What do we need to do in our schools to make instruction more contemporary to modern industry? And what resources are needed in the schools that the manufacturing committee can assist with through private support?”
Daiber said participants have already identified some “weaknesses” — programs in some districts that have diminished in recent years.
Madison County “has about 10 high schools with about six strong (vocational) programs,” he said. “Many of our schools have to beef up to build the preparatory skills students need to go to SWIC or to go to Lewis and Clark and to get the training.”
SunCoke Energy General Manager Don Vichitvongsa, chairs the steering committee.
“The top 50 manufacturers in Southwestern Illinois account for approximately 16,000 jobs,” he told a gathering this past month at Cope Plastics in Godfrey. “Thousands retiring in the coming years will create a wave of openings that will be hard to fill unless more people open their minds to the prospect of a future career in manufacturing or the many trades that support our industry.”
Vichitvongsa added: “Working together over the last half year or so, we discovered that the workforce availability and lack of skills are the greatest impediments of future growth of the manufacturing industry nationally, and right here in Southwestern Illinois.”
The campaign was unveiled in the gathering at Cope Plastics, with workers in the background operating a series of processing machines.
Many of the jobs coming available can be had with just a high school diploma or equivalent, along with on-the-job training. Trades job typically involve an apprenticeship that makes participants part of the workforce from the first day, so people get paid during their training. Apprentices can earn credits or take college courses toward a degree even as they work and have that college cost paid for by the trade.
Still, Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan said, many schools no longer push vocations or teach industrial arts — and they should.
“Not everyone is going to go to a university to get a four-year degree. They cost a lot of money and require loans that you have to pay off. Manufacturing has always been a mainstay for this area and is going to continue to be,” Dunstan said.
Dave Stoecklin, executive director of the Madison-Bond Workforce Board, said the campaign hopes to dispel the myth of manufacturing being a “dirty, mediocre pay job. In reality, this is an opportunity for a fast-paced, high-pay career using the latest, state-of-the-art technology.”
As Stoecklin spoke, he pointed out the clean, yet busy environment of the Cope plant in the background.
Billboards advertising the campaign are already in place. They highlight a newly launched website, www/wellpaid.info, along with a toll-free number, 1-844-WELL PAID, to link up directly with a contact from the workforce board to learn more.
A speakers bureau is planned to spread the word directly among educators, students and others. More information will be available at such places as PTO meetings and in school newsletters.
Students are being invited to participate in a Metro East Career Expo, taking place Nov. 2 to 5 at the Belle-Clair Fairground and Expo Center in Belleville. There they will get hands-on experience with some of the construction trades.
Dale Stewart, executive secretary of the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, said there are many opportunities in fields involving pipefitting, electrical, ironworking, sheet metal, carpentry, operating engineers and more.
“There’s a strong demand for all kinds of craftsmen. That means plenty of opportunity for those with the right skills and education. For a high school student who likes to tinker with electronics or build things or other hands-on activities, this could be a path for them,” Stewart said. “Those are the kids who need to focus on developing skills that provide good foundation for the trades.”
Among those skills he included mechanical reasoning, proficiency in math, reading comprehension, environmental awareness, computer literacy, troubleshooting, communication and others.
Adam Sheppard, an electrician out of Local 649 in Alton, said he wasn’t good at many subjects in high school but was good at shop classes. He got a two-year degree at Ranken Technical College in St. Louis and followed that up with a four-year apprenticeship, during which he flourished. He works for Wegman Electric.
“Now, I’m a journeyman, doing the electrical thing, supporting my family and all that good stuff,” Sheppard said.
Drew Mader, a CNC machine operator at Cope Plastics, has a similar tale.
“A decade ago, I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into when I came here just a couple of years out of high school,” Mader said. “While I thought Cope was going to be just a stepping stone to something else, what I found out was that machining was an interesting and challenging trade. I quickly started to use some of the basic — and not so basic — math skills I learned in high school, that my classmates and I were sure we’d never use again.
“I was not a math person, but when I got to use it in a real world environment it was like a whole new part of my brain had opened up. and I actually started to like math a lot. Here I am, 10 years later with a great career as a machinist,” Mader said.
Daiber said the numbers nationally paint a low emphasis on trades skills.
“Some of our premier high schools are so college focus, that there is no exposure (to trades),” he said. “There needs to be a reality. Only about 28 to 30 percent of kids that start to a four-year college ever graduate college. Of the 70 percent that do, about 50 percent of them go back to a community college and rediscover a (trades) career.”