Sarah Hartwick

Industries of all types are facing a shortage of workers, but nowhere is this crisis more pronounced or more profound than in the manufacturing sector. Manufacturers produce everything from the food we eat to the clothes we wear, to the vehicles we drive and the medicines we rely on.

In Illinois, manufacturers make components for spaceships, helmets for professional football players and even developed new technologies to aid in our nation’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet nationally, there are 800,000 manufacturing jobs that are unfilled – a figure that will only grow as baby boomers retire. It’s imperative that we work diligently to address this issue, or we risk long term disruptions ranging from supply shortages to economic instability.

That’s why the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association Education Foundation is kicking off an Education and Workforce Statewide Policy tour in conjunction with the start of Manufacturing Month, which is recognized annually during October. This includes a stop in Effingham, where we will meet with education officials and local businesses owners to take a deep dive into how we can work together to build a highly skilled workforce that will not only help put people to work but also build our state’s economic future for generations to come.

Through these discussions, we hope to discover and dismantle the barriers that are preventing students from entering the manufacturing field. We already know some of the challenges, including a skills gap that has left many students unprepared to enter the workforce after high school. As public officials spent the last several decades pushing students towards college, less focus was placed on ensuring students who are not college-bound or who are undecided upon graduation have the tools needed to earn a living.

Creating and defining career pathways that stem from career exploration opportunities will no doubt help to solve many of the problems that we are seeing with today’s workforce. It’s important we help students understand how an interest in working with their hands or an affinity for geometry can translate into designing and building parts for the U.S. space station, a product that is manufactured in Illinois.

Similarly, a student who wants to play in the NFL may find they are great fit for a job at Shutt Sports, which makes football helmets right here in our state. Sparking interest early engages students in a new and creative way and allows them to connect their passion with what they are learning in the classroom.

It is also important to integrate job shadowing, paid internships, and youth apprenticeships to provide students with a hands-on experience in a career that interests them. Not only will it provide a recruitment opportunity for an employer but will also allow the student to experience firsthand a career path may be right for them.

As the pandemic provides new insights into how we approach education, it’s an opportunity to rethink what a successful education means. While the goal of graduating from a four-year university is right for some, it is not the appropriate path for all students.

Instead, our focus should be on providing the tools and skills that students need to be successful after graduation in whatever they pursue, and that they are able to live a well-balanced and meaningful life. A career in manufacturing can provide all that and more.

Sarah Hartwick is Vice President for Education & Workforce Policy of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association & Executive Director of the IMA Education Foundation.

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