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Educating kids for the factories of the future

Mitchell Hartman Apr 6, 2012

Tess Vigeland: The latest jobs report shows unemployment is down to 8.2 percent. Companies added about 120,000 jobs to payrolls last month. Economists characterized that as ho-hum. One of the bright spots is — perhaps surprisingly — manufacturing. Employment in that sector is up by more than 4.5 percent since 2009. But many of those factory jobs require new skills.

From our Wealth and Poverty Desk, Mitchell Hartman reports on an inner-city Chicago high school that’s preparing kids for those jobs at a factory a hour away.

Eric Anderberg: These machines here are precision. They want a 10-inch bore cut in a part, plus or minus 2/10,000ths of an inch. We do that here.

Mitchell Hartman: I start at the specialty metal-working plant that Eric Anderberg runs in a light-industrial park on the outskirts of Rockford, Ill. Seventy people work here on state-of-the-art computerized cutting machines. Orders are rolling in for mining equipment and giant earth-movers. There’s just one problem.

Anderberg: We’re looking for people, we can’t find them.

There’s 10-percent unemployment in Illinois; it’s higher in Rockford, an old factory town. But skilled machine operators are scarce. When manufacturing tanked in the ’80s, Rockford closed its trade school.

Anderberg: Manufacturing in the classroom isn’t probably talked about too much, I mean, why do you want to work with your hands? You want to go to college. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s a very good living that can be made in the manufacturing industry. We have people here that make well over $50,000-$60,000 a year, plus their benefits.

Tom O’Brien: Guys, you’re running into some problems here, right? So why don’t we go back to the drawing here…

Actually, over in Chicago, they are talking about manufacturing in the classroom.

Desmond Bryant: It’s 4.115″.

O’Brien: And why?

Desmond: Because you add 15/1,000 to the roughing.

I’m at Austin Polytechnical Academy on Chicago’s West Side. It’s an advanced-manufacturing magnet school that teaches everything from engineering and English composition to modern factory skills.

The goal is to prepare Austin’s 240 students — primarily African-American, most from poor families — to go on to a two-year associate’s degree, if not four-year college. Or, land a well-paying job as a skilled machine operator, the kind of job Eric Anderberg back in Rockford is desperate to fill.

O’Brien: These students could go out and get jobs right away with these skills.

Tom O’Brien teaches computerized machine-cutting, design and robotics at Austin.

O’Brien: Just the other day, I heard there’s a shortage of people to service windmills. They can go into engineering sales.

School bell

O’Brien: All right, guys, let’s put your work back in your folders.

Few of these kids’ parents work in manufacturing. Most of those jobs disappeared decades ago, and the factories are now empty hulks. Instead, many are working service jobs — at a nursing home, cutting hair or behind a retail counter. The typical family here makes $33,000, less than half what these kids could ultimately earn with their training and certifications.

Desmond Bryant’s a senior. He’s the one who kept piping up with the answers in class.

Desmond: To tell you the truth, I never knew anything about engineering, until I came to this school. Because I always wanted to do a job with hands-on, but I never could find the right job that could fit me, except basketball. I love math, I always loved math, so now that I found engineering, I was like, yeah, this is me.

Hartman: What kind of job and wage are you hoping to eventually get?

Desmond: I would hopefully get a six-figure job, that would keep with my family. A big family, I want a big family.

He comes from a big and supportive family. Dad, Jerrold, works security at Austin and coaches the basketball team.

A few days later, I visited their well-kept apartment, not far from school. Desmond took me on a tour.

Desmond: Graduation pictures, family pictures, nephews, nieces. Over here is our trophy case. All these trophies are me and my sister’s. Running trophies, track trophies, basketball trophies…

That sister is now at Western Illinois University. Desmond’s aiming high, too. To be honest, that’s the only way he’s likely to ever get that six-figure salary. And his parents know it. Dad, Jerrold, did two years of college. Mom, Gloria, dropped out of high school and works as a nursing assistant.

Jerrold Thomas: No, he’s going to college, there’s no options there.

Gloria Bryant: You know what, Desmond is going to be an engineer, and you gotta go to college for that. He’s got plaques in there, from school.

Jerrold: Desmond knows what’s ahead of him, it’s all up to him. We all know, without education, we’re all up the creek without the paddle.

Gloria: And I want them better than me, when I was coming up. You know, things are harder now. They’ve got to focus.

She says that’s the only way her young ones are going to get out of the neighborhood and on in life.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

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