Tom Ward, Vice President and one of the owners of Ward Manufacturing (left), and Alderman Peter Braithwaite address the ETHS students who attended Manufacturing Day.RoundTable photo

Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

To kick off Illinois Manufacturing Month, local companies hosted tours for Evanston Township High School students in order to open their eyes to the career opportunities available to them in their own backyard.

Ward Manufacturing Company, Sugar & Spice Extraordinary Sweet Treats, SolidDevelopment Corporation and IRMCO invited more than 60 ETHS students to tour their companies to learn what a job would entail. With 80 different manufacturing businesses in Evanston’s WestEnd, the job opportunities are numerous. For the last five years, the City has amped up student’s exposure to these career opportunities through an annual manufacturing day, Alderman Peter Braithwaite said.

“Before I was on City Council I would drive by these buildings all the time,”  Ald.Braithwaite said. “I think it’s important that the community understands these businesses are here.”

These businesses that community members unknowingly drive by every day not only provide well-paying jobs but long-term career opportunities, Tom Ward, Vice President and one of the owners of Ward Manufacturing said. Mr. Ward explained that, with an average salary of $20.17 per hour, manufacturing companies such as his offer lucrative opportunities for recent graduates. Mr. Ward said that students are not made well-aware of these jobs, but he hopes Manufacturing Day inspires them to look into career options beyond what they are typically presented.

Economically, college is not an option for all high school graduates, but that does not mean there are not well-paying career options, Mr. Ward said. He explained that, while 60% of high school graduates will go on to get a four-year degree, it is important to introduce the remaining 40% to jobs that are otherwise not presented by both educators and the media.

“You guys are growing up in the Kardashian society where you think that is what success looks like when, in reality, that’s ridiculous,” Mr. Ward said. “We want to show you there are things that are real and obtainable. It takes hard work and time, but that’s how all [jobs] are.”

While a job at a manufacturing company can be pursued by those without a college degree, there is a level of skill required to work safely and efficiently, Mr. Ward explained. For this reason, it is even more important that students are made aware of these opportunities while still in high school so they can spend time in classes that will teach them some of the basic skills. ETHS’s Jon Lawrence offers a manufacturing lab that teaches some of the basics students need to enter this field, allowing them to actively plan for their future while still in high school, Mr. Ward said.

Students can begin training in high school, but they also have opportunities for even more education that will allow them to continue to move up within the company. Mr. Ward explained that their current apprentice. David Abramson, a former ETHS student who went on one of these tours two years ago and started at Ward Manufacturing after graduation, is taking classes at Oakton Community College to further his knowledge in the field – an opportunity that is funded completely by the company. While this kind of education and training is necessary to get the job done well, it also provides an increase in pay and brings a greater level of skill that many applicants lack.

“We have been in business for 75 years, and it won’t go another 10 unless this situation of the skill gap doesn’t get attention,” Mr. Ward said.

Preparing young adults for work in the manufacturing industry is key for continued economic growth, and it starts with days like Manufacturing Day, said Brittany Ladd, Acting Assistant Director of Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity. With manufacturing serving as the third largest industry in Illinois, Ms. Ladd said these companies are a “major bedrock” of the economy, and skilled workers are key to future success.

“We hear continually from manufacturers that the workforce is becoming a challenge, especially as the workforce ages,” Ms. Ladd said. “It’s really difficult to get a pipeline of students or young workers to replace them once they retire, so that’s why days like this and the opportunity to educate kids, high school teachers, and educators at large is an important part of insuring the next 10, 20, 50 years of manufacturing.”

Manufacturing companies have a significant impact on the community, and for that reason, the City is invested in their success. Ald. Braithwaite says, the WestEnd manufacturing companies provide more than 1,500 jobs and make a significant contribution to the property tax base. Because of their importance, the City awarded manufacturing a $700,000 grant in 2010 in order to ensure they remain in Evanston and continue to employ people like the students who tour every year, he said.

As the annual Manufacturing Day inspires high school students to pursue alternative job opportunities, Ms. Ladd hopes companies continue to see the tangible effects of students’ interest in these jobs as they enter the workforce after graduation.

“If we are able to offer a career pathway for high school students directly into well-paying jobs that keep them in Evanston and help to grow Ward and other businesses, it’s a cycle we like to see,” she said.