Putting students in the driver's seat of a manufacturing career

Illinois college's $1.5 million new metal fabrication lab looks to prepare students for lifelong careers and help employers meet critical skilled-labor needs

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

Shortly after Dr. Kenneth Ender arrived as president of Harper College in July 2009, he was told that a group of area tool-and-die makers wanted to talk to him about how the college could help prepare local students for manufacturing careers. Ender accepted the request, expecting a small discussion with a handful of business leaders.

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"Young people are drawn to opportunities to try out something," Harper College President Dr. Kenneth Ender said at the school's open house for its new FMA Metal Fabrication Lab.

Instead, he said at an open house this week for Harper's new $1.5 million metal fabrication lab, 23 regional CEOs and owners showed up seeking a dialogue about the critical workforce issues they were facing. "They desperately needed help" in finding and developing skilled labor, Ender relayed. "That made a big impression on me."

Fast-forward nearly seven years, and Harper College (www.goforward.harpercollege.edu) is ready to train more than 600 students annually in its new lab, officially called the FMA Fabrication Lab. Harper broke ground on the 6,000-square-foot facility, funded in part by a $500,000 grant from the Rockford, IL-based Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (www.fmanet.org), last year. The lab doubles the size of Harper's previous manufacturing facility, according to a news release, and offers students the chance to train on state-of-the-art robotic welders, press brakes, and more.

"At the end of the day, all of this is about meaningful work," FMA CEO Ed Youdell said at the open house – finding meaningful work for Harper College's students and helping industry find skilled labor. Youdell noted that he hopes the partnership with Harper and the resulting new fabrication lab will serve as a model, leading to replications of the partnership and the facility with schools across the country.

Harper's new lab supports the school's Advanced Manufacturing Program, which seeks to prepare students for manufacturing careers in areas such as mechatronics/automation, precision machining, metal fabrication, and supply chain management. At Tuesday's open house, panelists including Ender and Jean Pitzo, CEO of ACE Metal Crafts in Bensenville, IL, discussed the array of opportunities available to students who pursue a manufacturing career. 

"The students are in the driver's seat these days," said Pitzo, who noted that her company's highest-paid welder last year made $90,000. "I think students can be really selective these days, because every fabricator I know has job openings."

Still, it can be a challenge to correct students' and parents' erroneous assumptions that manufacturing offers low-wage jobs in dark, dirty environments and not a lot of promising advancement potential, panelists said. Exposing them to state-of-the-art technology in programs like Harper's and connecting them via internships with local employers in need of talent is vital, said Ender. "Young people are drawn to opportunities to try out something," he said.

And "manufacturing today does look different," said Pitzo. "It's bright; it's clean...(and) the pay is very livable." ACE's lowest wage is $15 an hour (for the janitor), she noted, and the company's highest wage is $30 an hour. 

To help make advanced manufacturing education, like all of its other programs, more affordable, Harper last year partnered with high schools in three local school districts to launch the Harper College Promise Scholarship Program. The program, which students commit to during their freshman year of high school, offers up to two years of free tuition at Harper for meeting several criteria throughout their high school career: maintaining an average grade of "C" or better, having good attendance, graduating on time and not repeating classes, and performing community service. One-hundred thousand dollars of FMA's grant for the fabrication lab will go to manufacturing students who qualify for the scholarship.

"None of us can solve the shortage of skilled workers in isolation," Ender said in 2015 ahead of the lab's groundbreaking. "By working together, we can ensure that our local manufacturers have the highly trained workforce they need to compete in a 21st-century global economy."

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