Skilled manufacturers in high demand

Employers have always wanted skilled workers, but that want has become much more of a need as McHenry County employers scramble to fill skilled positions.

The national unemployment rate was 8.2 percent for those of working age – 16 years and older – in May and June. It was 8 percent in McHenry County in May, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the unemployment rate for manufacturing jobs is lower – 6.9 percent, which shows that manufacturing is hiring.

“Right now there is a high demand for skilled workers,” said Terri Greeno, owner of Express Employment Professionals in Crystal Lake.

Local businesses turn to Express Employment Professionals, which specializes in recruiting workers. Greeno knows the lack of skilled workers firsthand, with repeated inquiries from companies having trouble filling positions on their own.

The majority of these skilled jobs are in manufacturing. Computer Numerical Control machining, or CNC machining, is particularly in high demand, but few are qualified for such jobs.

“Industrywide, it’s an issue in manufacturing,” said Kim Scott, human resources manager for Sage Products in Cary. She said Sage and “a lot of our colleagues” are not able to find engineers with the right skills.

So the health care manufacturing company has explored other options to meet its needs, such as promoting entry-level workers to higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs. But the company is learning there is a problem with that strategy, too: entry-level workers are just that – entry level – and lack certain qualities that key jobs demand.

Scott said some entry-level employees lack maturity and are unable to handle a skilled position, or they simply are not willing to put in the effort a job requires.

Sage Products considers training an option, and has restarted parts of training programs in the hope of a more skilled workforce.

The training program has been kept small, though, because of the expense. Paying someone to come in and train current workers can be costly, and so is pulling an experienced, skilled worker out of production to teach others.

Many skilled labor jobs pay well – in the range of $60,000 a year – but require experience that doesn’t come with a typical, four-year college degree.

A program at Rock Valley College in Rockford called TechWorks offers a solution. It trains students to be CNC machinists at an operator level.

TechWorks is an accredited, fast-track program that students complete in seven weeks. They receive 150 hours of hands-on experience with the machines, coupled with classroom time. Upon completion, students graduate with credentials to be an CNC machinist.

“The program has an 86 percent placement rate,” said David Morgan, instructor of TechWorks and a 40-year veteran of manufacturing. “And that’s huge when our field is going through a tremendous skill shortage.”

Morgan said that about two dozen area companies wait for TechWorks to graduate classes, and they hire there.

Morgan said most of the students are at TechWorks because they have changed careers in the hope of earning more money or are sent by an employer to gain experience.

Scot Forge, a metal forging company based in Spring Grove, is familiar with TechWorks.

Ron Wieczorek, corporate director of human resources for Scot Forge, said two recent graduates of the program have come to work for the company. Scot Forge also has sent a few employees through the program to increase their knowledge and skills.

Wieczorek said society needs to shift its focus to the root of the skilled labor problem.

And the solution could be in high schools.

“My read of it is: The interest for kids appears to be more college-bound,” he said. “We’ve been working with local high schools and shop teachers and asking them if they have any good students.

“If they have an interest in manufacturing, we will reach out to them. We give tours of our workplace and see if they want to intern with us. They need to know that manufacturing is alive and doing well, and it’s a great way to make a living.”

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