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By ALAN J. ORTBALS
    Members of the Manufacturing Steering Committee of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois are ready to hit the road and spread the word about the need for youth to pursue careers in manufacturing and skilled trades.
    Twenty-five of its members have undergone a speaker training program provided by Southwestern Illinois College. They are contacting school superintendents seeking opportunities to not only talk to high school students but middle schoolers as well.
    “The mission going forward is to try to get the word out into the community,” said Dave Stoecklin, executive director of the Madison-Bond Workforce Development Board. “It’s really a mission to get the hearts and minds of moms and dads to let them know the kinds of opportunities that are there for their sons and daughters that don’t require a four year degree and that would keep their grandchildren in the area.”  
    The campaign was conceived by the two workforce investment boards and the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois’ Manufacturing Steering Committee, whose members include the heads of the two workforce investment boards and representatives of local manufacturers and employers such as Phillips66, SunCoke Energy, U.S. Steel, Olin Corporation, Dynegy, Progressive Recovery, Inc., Metro East Industries, Affton Chemical, the ROHO Group, America’s Central Port and Wertz Welding. Key leaders at the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, Southwestern Illinois College and Lewis and Clark Community College also serve on the committee, along with the superintendents of schools for both Madison and St. Clair counties. Working together over the past 18 months, they discovered that workforce availability and lack of skills were the greatest impediment to future growth of the manufacturing industry and set about addressing that issue.
    Talking to local manufacturers and union leaders revealed that there would be about 1,500 manufacturing job openings over the next five years with another 1,500 in that same period for the crafts. Manufacturing jobs in Madison and St. Clair counties offer average earnings topping $80,000 a year, well above the national average. Careers in the trades also come with a high wage, averaging almost $33 per hour plus benefits of $22, for a total of $55 an hour.
    An added benefit of a career path in manufacturing is that many of the available jobs can be obtained with just a high school diploma or equivalent, along with on-the-job training, while others require various certifications that can be earned in two years or less and at far less cost than earning a four-year degree. The path to a successful future in the trades typically involves an apprenticeship that makes you part of the workforce from day one, so people get paid during their on-the-job training.
    “This is somebody with nothing more than an associate’s degree and five to 10 years of experience,” Stoecklin said. “Imagine being 28 years old, making that kind of money and not having any college debt.”
    Billboards are already in place in three prominent locations in Southwestern Illinois highlighting the new www.wellpaid.info website that’s been launched to provide more information, along with the toll-free 844-WELL-PAID phone number that people can call to connect directly with contacts at the workforce investment boards to learn more. In addition to the speakers’ bureau, facilities tours will be coordinated for students and school staff and faculty to see first-hand what today’s advanced manufacturing entails. The campaign’s launch aims to spread the word through traditional media channels, while future plans call for social media to be utilized to even better connect with students and provide opportunities for them to share this message through their social networks.
    All these efforts are aimed at driving traffic to the website and toll-free number so people can learn what they may specifically need in terms of training for a particular career and request details on manufacturers with job openings and how to apply. More details on the individual opportunities within each of the trades, from carpentry or iron worker to electrician or operating engineer and many others, will also be available.
    “Manufacturing really has career potential because it’s no longer that dirty job,” Stoecklin said. “It’s a job that requires technical skills whether it be at Kraft-Heinz Foods, U.S. Steel or Gateway Packaging, it really doesn’t matter. It’s not a lot of intensive labor. It’s technicians keeping all of the machines running and being able to problem solve when something goes wrong.”  
    Stoecklin said that manufacturers and unions are involved because they are worried about where their future workforce is going to come from. One of the things that has broken the labor pipeline is the decline of technical education in the schools.
    “Because of the very tight budget these schools are operating on, a lot of what we used to call vocational education — which is now called career and technical education — has been phased out,” said Stoecklin. “We’ve really got to get back to those kind of jobs. Those are the jobs that don’t get exported.”  
    Last October more than 800 students attended Manufacturing Day at the Southwestern Illinois College Sam Wolf Granite City Campus Industrial Technology Center Open House. Students were able to tour the newly renovated SWIC manufacturing facility, see demonstrations of cutting-edge technology, try virtual welding and meet local manufacturers displaying their products and capabilities.
    The two-pronged campaign theme is Manufacture Your Future/Craft Your Future – A Career that Pays in Southwestern Illinois. Ronda Sauget is the executive director of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois.
    “We’re working really hard to raise awareness about jobs in manufacturing and crafts,” Sauget said. “A lot of our employers certainly have a talent challenge in terms of getting the right people in the jobs.”  
    To that end, the Leadership Council will be launching a manufacturing business marketing and communications campaign. That, she said, will coincide with the re-accreditation of the levees that is expected later this year.