CRYSTAL LAKE – Two years ago RoseAnn Smith of Lake in the Hills decided she needed to go back to school if she didn’t want to work the night shift for minimum wage for the rest her life.
“I realized this wasn’t going to cut it,” the 44-year-old year said.
So Smith went back to school through a program at McHenry County College, got her GED and took manufacturing and advanced CNC courses. She will soon be certified in machining with skills she hopes will lead to a higher-paying, more varied career in manufacturing.
“I want to earn a lot more and have a career that I enjoy,” Smith said. “I want to be smiling everyday when I go to work.”
MCC’s new manufacturing lab was built to help others follow in Smith’s footsteps. It also may help to close the widening skills gap local manufacturing companies face as older workers retire.
Students began taking courses at the college’s manufacturing lab this summer. College officials said the lab and for-credit manufacturing programs came in response to what they heard from businesses in the area.
“We started meeting with manufacturers two years ago, and this is what came out of those conversations,” MCC President Vicky Smith said. “I think these programs will continue to grow. It’s really needed in our community by manufacturers of all sizes.”
The lab allows MCC to offer introductory and advanced computer numerical control machining classes on its Crystal Lake campus. For the past three years, the college has partnered with Woodstock District 200 to offer classes at both Woodstock high schools. The college built the lab on the site of the former Black Box Theatre, which was relocated earlier this year, using money from a $500,000 Trade Adjustment Assistance grant from the Department of Labor and other funding. The money paid for two advanced computer numerical control (known as CNC) machines and three robotics machines. The college spent another $70,000 to buy six manual mill and lathe machines to complete the manufacturing lab.
Having a lab on the college’s main campus makes taking classes easier for many students, MCC adjunct instructor Steve Thompson said.
“It’s a more central location and a better lab – everything here is new,” Thompson said during a recent class. “We also can show off the lab to attract new students.”
Nearly all of the students in Thompson’s classes at MCC are men.
Like Smith, most are interested in learning CNC to gain skills needed to find higher-payer jobs, he said. Others are looking to get started in the manufacturing industry.
Smith, who grew up with three brothers, said she wasn’t intimidated by the fact that she was the only woman in her class. In fact, she hopes it will give her an edge.
“I think it will help me stand out,” she said. “I bring a different perspective.”
CNC machines “really are how things are made these days,” Thompson said. He pointed to Lake Barrington-based Swiss Automation, which recently announced it was expanding the Cary plant it bought in 2010 and adding 60 new jobs in the coming years, as one sign of a broader resurgence in manufacturing throughout the country.
The manufacturing industry has been touting “re-shoring” projects for several years.
“A lot of companies are bringing manufacturing back to America,” Thompson said. “China doesn’t do quality like we do. And the costs of manufacturing in China are going up. It doesn’t make sense to manufacture in China anymore.”
Machinist and tool and die maker jobs in the U.S. are expected to increase 7 percent from 2012 to 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s slower than the 11 percent growth expected for all U.S. jobs during the same period. The median pay for machinists and tool and die makers was $19.67 a hour, or $40,910 a year, in 2012.
Thompson said skilled employees who know “g-code” – the computer code used to program CNC machines – can earn $60,000 to $70,000 a year or more in some cases.
“That’s where everyone wants to go,” he said. “That’s where the big money is.”
Companies, including Scot Forge in Spring Grove and TC Industries Inc. near Crystal Lake, have praised MCC’s new lab as an asset to the manufacturing community.
“It’s a good start to better the future of manufacturing in McHenry County,” Scot Forge intern coordinator Zach Ford said in a news release.
As older workers retire, manufacturers haven’t been able to find enough skilled workers to take those jobs.
“Many manufacturers don’t have a pipeline of qualified employees,” said Stephen O’Connor, TAA-iNAM grant coordinator at McHenry County College. “This is a big need.”
O’Connor plans to work with local companies to establish internship programs for MCC’s manufacturing students. Many of the college’s manufacturing classes are already at or near capacity, O’Connor said.
Before MCC started offering the classes, many students traveled out of the county to get training, said Julie Courtney, director of McHenry County Workforce Network.
“There is a large demand for this type of training,” she said. “This is a huge asset for employers, employees and those seeking new skills.”
Pam Cumpata, president of the McHenry County Economic Development Corp., said MCC’s program helps put the focus on the skills gap in manufacturing and could help local companies stay competitive as the industry continues to evolve.
“This is extremely positive,” she said.