Chicago readies its workforce for smarter manufacturing

Thomas Wilk says digital winds are blowing for manufacturing.

By Thomas Wilk, chief editor

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Rahm Emanuel’s tenure as mayor of Chicago hasn’t been uniformly smooth sailing, especially over the past month. However, Emanuel recently gave a keynote interview calmly navigating some of the key questions facing our industry: Which manufacturing innovations are worthy of long-term investment? How will digital innovations help U.S. companies remain competitive? And how are local communities preparing the next-generation workforce to fill today’s and tomorrow’s jobs?

Sponsored by The Atlantic magazine and Siemens, the late-November “Bold Bets: Future of Manufacturing” event assembled key Illinois industry leaders, labor advocates, and government officials to take an open and direct look at the state of manufacturing in the United States, with a special focus on achievements local to the Windy City.

“We will always go right if we invest in our people and in our economic capacity,” said Mayor Emanuel. “We’ve not updated as a country to meet the needs of a 21st-century economy. Our educational system stops at a 12th-grade commitment, and yet the jobs of tomorrow require, at a minimum, two years of post-high school education.”

Emanuel sees Chicago’s strengths in attracting manufacturing jobs and talent as being equal parts Midwest work ethic, a skilled workforce, and a centrally located distribution hub. To that end, his administration has been focusing on two key areas: securing and supporting a digital manufacturing research hub, which features the work of entities such as UI Labs and Northwestern University; and fostering strong partnerships between industry and the City Colleges of Chicago to “give everybody an education up to 14th grade” and help place skilled workers where they are most needed.

“The days of making widgets and repetitive motion is over,” Emanuel added. “The ability to handle computers is the manufacturing of tomorrow, and we’re creating the educational and research (platforms), the brains and the brawn” that will keep Chicago competitive.

After the mayor’s interview, the symposia turned to the topic of building the next-generation workforce, bringing together Illinois state Sen. Linda Holmes, Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez, and GACC Midwest director of skills initiatives Mario Kratsch. Ramirez in particular expressed optimism that “the Millennial generation is really big on creativity” and is poised to help bridge the gap between classroom reality and shop-floor reality.

The event concluded with a discussion of the rapid digitization of manufacturing, as UI Labs founding CTO William King took aim at what’s at stake: “Manufacturing generates more data than any other sector of the economy,” he said. “This digitization makes knowledge workers more important ... they will be the people who know how to use data, to ask questions of data, to visualize data in a manufacturing environment, and then to make good decisions.”