WHEELING, ILL. — Javier Tamayo looks like a journeyman machinist as he briskly turns a wrench to replace a chipped tool in a computerized cutting device at Bridgestone's metal parts factory here.
Tamayo, 19, landed the $12-an-hour job last year after graduating from Wheeling High School's manufacturing program and is on his way to a career that pays upwards of $80,000 a year.
Wheeling has been turning out hire-ready manufacturing workers like Tamayo for six years. It's one of a growing number of U.S. high schools that have launched or revived manufacturing programs in recent years to guide students toward good-paying jobs and help fill a critical shortage of skilled machinists, welders and maintenance technicians.
Manufacturing courses were dropped from vocational education programs as the industry declined over the past three decades and no one tracks how many high schools offer them now. But Project Lead the Way, which creates high school engineering and technology curricula, says one manufacturing class it designed for Wheeling is offered in about 800 schools — nearly twice as many as in 2009.
The training targets a glaring imbalance in the labor market. Despite high unemployment since the recession, manufacturers still struggle to fill hundreds of thousands of job openings. Since bottoming out in February 2010, employment at U.S. factories has risen by 700,000 to 12.1 million, recouping about 30% of the jobs the industry lost in the downturn.
Manufacturers are increasingly looking to high schools and community colleges to fill current staffing needs and gear up for a wave of Baby Boomer retirements. Educators are trying to dispel student's misconceptions about the industry and spark their interest before they choose other jobs or head to four-year colleges, a costly career investment that has yielded disappointing results for some graduates.
Jobs and the aging manufacturing workforce(Photo: USA TODAY)
Manufacturing is dogged by an outdated image that it's "very physical, labor-intensive, you're working with your hands, you're getting dirty and there's no career path," says Gardner Carrick, vice president of the Manufacturing Institute, the industry's training arm. Actually, "you're working with computers and robots that are doing what you used to do by hand. That requires a skill set (in math and science) above what was required a generation ago."
Lessons from Germany
The high school programs borrow from Germany's education model, which forces students to choose a career track and take part in internships as early as age 15. Many are channeled into skilled labor jobs, which are more highly respected than they are in the U.S. After building plants in the U.S. in recent years, several German companies are teaming with U.S. community colleges to replicate that apprenticeship system in this country.
Several years ago, Siemens, the German energy conglomerate, sought to train new U.S. workers for a 1,500-employee turbine and generator plant it was opening in Charlotte in 2011. But only 10% of applicants passed a math and science aptitude test and only about 450 of 3,000 people it trained for five months were hired. So Siemens partnered with Central Piedmont Community College to create a program that supplies machinists for the factory. High school seniors and graduates who enter the program earn associate degrees while serving as paid apprentices at Siemens for 3½ years. When they're done, they're guaranteed a $55,000 a year job at Siemens.
"You're getting paid, you have no debt and you get a job at $55,000," says Eric Spiegel, CEO of Siemens USA. "The average liberal arts graduate (from a four-year college) is making less than $40,000" or can't find a position in their field. "Meanwhile, we can't fill these technical jobs."
Other Charlotte-area manufacturers are also taking part in the program, most of them German.
Another German company, Volkswagen, went a step further, building its own academy next to the 3,200-employee assembly plant it opened three years ago in Chattanooga, Tenn. Instructors from Chattanooga State Community College teach high school graduates and others to maintain and repair robots at the plant while they serve apprenticeships at the factory.
The company-specific training isn't cheap. It costs Volkswagen about $1 million to put each student through the three-year program. "We are interested in having our own skilled team members who ... have to be familiar with our equipment," says Sebastian Patta, the plant's executive vice president of human resources. Toyota has a similar program at its factory in Georgetown, Ky.
President Obama's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership is working to spread the community-college-apprenticeship model across the USA, initially through programs led by Siemens, Dow and Alcoa in Texas, California, Illinois and Minnesota. The group plans to release an online manual that provides a road map for schools and employers in other states. "We're looking for ways to get more communities involved and to scale this," says Siemens' Spiegel, who's on the partnership's steering committee.
A draw for 'A' and 'C' students
Wheeling and other high schools aim to spur students' interest in manufacturing and familiarize them with equipment, rather than turn out fully formed craftspeople. Tom Iida, president of Bridgestone, which makes construction and mining equipment parts, says Tamayo had to be trained for eight weeks when he was hired, though he learned quickly. "We have high hopes for him," he says.
In the six years since Wheeling and other schools in Illinois District 214 began their manufacturing classes, the number of participating students has increased to 216, nearly doubling since 2012. The schools are providing a growing labor pool for factories in metropolitan Chicago, one of the nation's most manufacturing-intensive areas.
Wheeling's manufacturing lab, nestled in a quiet corner of the bustling school, almost resembles a small factory, with three hulking computerized machines to cut and shape metal, two manual mills, a drill press, a laser cutter and other devices. In another room with rows of PCs, students write programs that tell the digital machines how to shape formless metal or wood.
Students at Wheeling High School in Illinois have the option to learn manufacturing skills, often landing in-demand jobs right after graduation.(Photo: Anne Ryan for USA TODAY)
When the classes started in 2008, instructors initially faced resistance from parents turned off by the industry's gritty image and wedded to the idea of their kids attending a four-year college. "You go up to a parent and you say we have manufacturing classes, and they walk away," says Wheeling teacher Michael Geist. "But you say manufacturing-engineering and you show them the kinds of things" kids are doing in class "and they become excited."
The traditional college route is an option for Peter Barts, a strapping junior at the district's Elk Grove High School in nearby Elk Grove Village. His father is a lawyer, and he gets high grades and takes advanced placement physics and math classes. But, he says, "I've always loved working with my hands."
Until he began taking manufacturing classes this year, "I thought of it as you're doing exactly the same thing over and over again." He changed his mind when he learned that machinists use judgment to program computerized machines to trim metal to precise specifications measured in ten thousandths of an inch.
Barts says he plans to be a welder, which can pay upwards of $100,000 a year with overtime, or a shop-class teacher. Either way, he may get additional training at a community college. "For me, it's not work — it's something that I love doing," he says before donning a protective mask to practice on the school's welding simulator. "Once you're done building something, you have this sense of pride — 'I did that.' "
There are also financial benefits: "I won't pay as much (for school) as students who are going to a four-year college," Barts says.
"Whatever makes him happy," says Peter's father, David Barts. "People think that if you don't have a piece of paper that says you went to college that you're no good. … It's wrong."
For struggling students, the program provides inspiration and a potential career path. Before he took Wheeling's advanced manufacturing class this fall, junior Adrian Trego had poor grades and often neglected his homework.
Now, he says he's getting B's and C's in geometry, chemistry and literature and plans to work as a machinist after he graduates. "With this class, I have the motivation," Trego says after furiously turning the crank of a manual milling machine to flatten a small metal block in Wheeling's lab.
"It's a way out," Trego adds. "I don't want to be working at McDonald's."
Manufacturers: Potential for growth
Many pursue industrial careers. A third of the graduating students are hired by local factories, earning starting wages of $12-$16 an hour, a third continue their training at a local community college, and the rest scatter to other careers.
District officials work with about 100 local manufacturers to help design classes and establish internships for some students. Despite the successes of the high school and community college programs, there are hurdles to importing Germany's apprenticeship model to the U.S. The demand for workers still far outstrips the number of students taking courses.
Bridgestone's Iida is frustrated that the competition for interns among local manufacturers is so fierce that the school hasn't provided the firm any the past two summers. "I would love to get more," he says.
Community colleges also are turning out more prospective employees but not keeping up with demand. Nationwide, community colleges awarded 1,557 associate degrees or certificates in manufacturing last year, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. That's up from 616 in 2005 but below the nearly 1,600 doled out in 2000.
Spiegel of Siemens says just 15 apprentices are in the company's program with Central Piedmont Community College, a total he would like to substantially increase. He also wants to encourage more U.S.-based manufacturers in the Charlotte area to join the partnership with the college.
"One of (manufacturers') concerns is — if I train people for 3½ years, somebody else can come along and hire them," he says. "If you just have a few companies doing this in certain markets, it is a little bit of a risky investment." The solution, he says, is to blanket the country with such programs. "I think this is really a path to America's new middle class," Spiegel says.