Schools: Getting hands dirty can pay off in future

CHAMPAIGN — At a time when students may think they need a bachelor's degree to be eligible for good jobs, local educators are encouraging them to look into an education that would qualify them for well-paying local manufacturing jobs.

About 50 percent of local maintenance technicians will retire in the next five to 10 years, said Mark Combs, Parkland College's project director for the Community Based Job Training Grant.

Local companies have had trouble finding skilled individuals to fill those positions.

"The number of applicants with skills to match that need is very low," Combs said.

It's not just a local problem, either.

"Nationwide, there is a shortage of skilled technicians," Combs said.

To solve the problem, local educators and manufacturing businesses are encouraging students to get an education after high school that would qualify them for these jobs.

Those efforts include Parkland working with local manufacturers to make sure students learn practical, necessary skills, and the Champaign schools working with officials from the city, the trades and Parkland College to talk about improving the school district's offerings and making sure graduates finish school on the right path, said Marc Changnon, who is Champaign schools' district coordinator for its Education to Careers and Professions Program.

The Champaign school district is also budgeting $100,000 next year to improve its shop and auto areas at Central, and another $100,000 for the 2013-14 school year, according to a preliminary budget released in March. The shop will also get an additional $30,000 dust collector that had been previously budgeted for, Changnon said.

"We need to update the equipment" so it matches that used professionally today, Changnon said, "so kids are getting a true look at this."

Next year, Centennial students will be bused to Central so they can take vocational classes, and as a result, enrollment has doubled.

Central is adding another teacher to teach vocational classes there, Changnon said.

Previously, Central only had one shop teacher, he said.

Students can take basic auto, construction and industrial technology classes at Central, Changnon said.

But if they want to take more advanced classes in those areas, they're encouraged to take them at Parkland College through the dual-credit program, which allows them to earn high school and college credit simultaneously.

Students at the other 24 high schools in Parkland's district are also eligible to take those classes, which are available from 8:15 to 9:30 a.m. during the school year. That time slot allows students to attend Parkland first then head back to their high schools for the rest of the day.

In those classes, they mix with traditional Parkland students who find the time slot convenient, Combs said. Dual-credit classes are one way Parkland is working with local businesses to make sure students learn the skills that will qualify them for local jobs, he said.

That's especially true in Parkland's industrial maintenance technician program, which started in 2009 with a $1.56 million job training grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Part of the industrial maintenance program requirement is that the student serve two internships while in the program.

While high school students don't usually participate in these programs — interns are required to be 18 years old and have completed two semesters in the program — taking dual-credit classes in high school gives them a head start.

Several local businesses, including Kraft, Plastipak, Flex-N-Gate/Guardian West, Conair and now Solo Cup are working with Parkland to provide those internships for students as well as tailor classes and curriculum to make graduates qualified for jobs.

Students who work at such internships get "the opportunity and experience to find out if the job is right for them," Combs said.

Dual-credit classes for the industrial maintenance program began in 2010, Combs said, and enrollment in those classes is slowly starting to increase.

Rich Blazier, who coordinates Parkland's dual-credit program, said the college offered 33 career and technical ed classes in spring of 2012, with high school students taking up 296 seats. They earned 666 hours of college credit by participating in those classes.

Blazier said he expects enrollment in these classes to go up as students learn that they're available.

Students need to have at least a 2.0 grade-point average to qualify to participate in these dual-credit classes, and they have to apply and be accepted to Parkland, as well.

Because they're attending classes at Parkland, they pay tuition.

However, the Champaign school district is starting a scholarship program next fall that will pay for tuition, books and even transportation for students who win the award.

Two students were awarded the scholarship for the first semester and may request assistance for second-semester classes if their grades are high enough.

"These are great opportunities for students who take initiative," Changnon said. If the school district sees applications for the scholarship increase, it may pursue grant funding in order to provide for more students who want to take dual-credit vocational classes at Parkland.

Plus, he said, if high school students can earn 20 or 24 hours of credit toward a vocational certificate or degree at Parkland while still in high school, they could finish early once becoming traditional Parkland students. Students could decide to go on to earn an associate's degree or even transfer to a four-year school to earn a bachelor's degree or beyond.

However, the school district wants students to know that an education from Parkland can lead to finding jobs that will pay well and offer benefits, Changnon said.

Carrie Deer, the assistant human resources manager at Kraft, said her company's involvement in the collaboration with Parkland came after her department interviewed more than 1,000 people over several years to fill a number of openings for line technicians.

She said interest has dropped in manufacturing jobs and high schools have cut their programs.

"It's not popular now to really get your hands dirty," Deer said. "We're trying to promote the skilled jobs and the benefits of working in a manufacturing environment."

She said many people think of manufacturing jobs like sweatshops, which isn't accurate, Deer said. Instead, these are highly technical positions working with automated machines. Line technicians keep automated lines running smoothly and are the first line of defense when a line goes down.

The technician analyzes the problem, Deer said. If it's electrical, the technician calls an electrician. If a new part is needed, the technician calls maintenance to order a new one.

Sometimes, it's as simple as adding grease or tightening something up, she said.

Deer said it's important to get the word out about these positions.

An internship at Kraft pays $12.50 an hour, and line technicians start at $23 an hour. Some line technicians, the ones who earn overtime by working six or seven days a week, earn $80,000 to $90,000 per year.

"Not every student is going to go to a four-year university," Deer said. "Some kids barely want to finish high school. For two more years, or even less if they wanted to get it done sooner, they can go to Parkland, go through this program and have a very good job."

Kraft's jobs are also secure, Deer said. The Champaign location is considered Kraft's flagship, she said, and will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.

Sean McLaughlin, the system director for Education for Employment System 330, said these are great jobs for students, at a time when those who have general bachelor's degrees or don't have clear career goals as they enter college, have a higher chance of being unemployed or underemployed.

His agency works as a liaison between local school districts and Parkland, to make sure school districts know of such opportunities for their students.

But if they get the right education, manufacturing jobs provide high pay and good job security.

"The employers are really looking for these type of people," McLaughlin said. "There's a shortage of skilled workers."

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