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Crystal Lake manufacturers struggling with workforce gap

4 Crystal Lake companies describe lack of skilled workers

The economy may be on its best footing in years, but McHenry County’s manufacturing scene has been in a quiet battle with a workforce dilemma: a shortage of employees skilled enough – and willing to work hard enough – to get the job done. 

“There is a demand for manufacturing workers in McHenry County,” said Joe Shulfer, president and CEO of Matthews Co., a Crystal Lake business that engineers grain-drying machines from the ground up. 

Matthews Co. has little trouble finding people to fill white-collar positions in accounting and human resources, but when it comes to needs in the fabrication and maintenance departments, it’s a different story.

The Northwest Herald spoke with several manufacturing companies in Crystal Lake and learned the workforce shortage is felt across the industry.

Precision Waterjet Inc.,
684 Tek Drive

The water pressure of a gas-operated power washer used on a typical residential driveway can range from 2,000 to 3,000 pounds per square inch.

Precision Waterjet President Rich Edwards has a machine that pushes water at 94,000 psi – enough power to slice into a piece of steel. Combined with sand, a stream of water shot from that machine can cut through just about anything.

“We do precision cutting of almost every material,” Edwards said.

After a stint in the military and a career in research and development at Illinois Tool Works, he opened Precision Waterjet with his father, a career airline engineer.

The Crystal Lake company now employs 14 people and does 80 percent of its business within 150 miles of McHenry County. Edwards’ employees uses waterjet and laser technology to cut glass, metal and ceramics in all manner of shapes and sizes for clients. 

Although business is booming, there’s one small hitch: There aren’t many people in McHenry County with enough know-how to work a machine such as the laser.

Edwards was lucky. He had guy from a neighborhood company in Cary who had 20 years of experience. If not for his experience, someone would have learned how to operate the machine in-house.

“We can’t find workers,” Edwards said. “My doors are pretty much open to anyone who has a mechanical background.”

To Edwards, there’s a universe of career opportunities kids in school often aren’t exposed to.

“When I went to school, they treated auto shop as the place for kids that had trouble in school,” Edwards said. “It was all looked down upon.” 

Edwards was the kind of student who wanted to be in shop class. It paid off, he said. Now there’s a demand for people who work with their hands.

“We have hundreds of programmers and 50 jobs,” Edwards said. “They’re paying the guy $100 an hour to change the toilet in their house.”

Heartland Cabinet Supply,
6119 Route 14

Gary Reese sold cabinets for a long time before he decided to open Heartland Cabinet Supply in 1999.

Today, the company employees
20 people and does most of its business within 50 miles of Chicago. Like many other manufacturing companies, his employees travel far from McHenry County to get to work.

“We have a gal who drives from Oregon, Illinois,” Reese said. “Seventy miles each way.”

The anecdote is an example of the workforce gap many McHenry County companies are navigating.

“We just have a hard time finding people,” Reese said.

Heartland doesn’t expect every candidate to have groundbreaking talent, as long as they have the right attitude and a willingness to learn.

“We are happy to train, and we’ve been fortunate of picking up people from other shops,” said Reese, who pitches McHenry County’s manufacturing scene as a good place to find a great career. “Whether it’s in metals or woods or plastic injection molding, you can make a very good living here.”

General Kinematics Corp.,
5050 Rickert Road

General Kinematics may be based in Crystal Lake, but it has offices in Germany, China, Thailand and India.

As vice president of technical services, Randy Smith is in his 39th year with the company that engineers machinery to help other companies retrieve raw mining products, including gold, aluminum and lithium for batteries.

In China, the company is installing a 60-foot-long vibrating machine at a foundry that knocks away excess sand from the fresh molds of car parts such as engine blocks and transmission housings.

Smith, too, always is seeking skilled workers – but the job aren’t limited to the factory.

“Procurement. Inventory. Sales. Accounting,” Smith said of opportunities in manufacturing – an industry that doesn’t always require a four-year degree. “There’s a stigma that every child needs to go to college in order to have a successful career.”

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