Opinion: High-tech manufacturing needs prepared Illinois students

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Often, we hear people say, “We don’t make anything in America anymore” or that “Good manufacturing jobs that helped build our country’s middle class have moved overseas.”

That’s not true. Manufacturing is the backbone of our economy and of middle-class families. It contributes the single largest share — 12.4 percent — of the gross state product and employs 570,000 Illinois workers. In 2015, Illinois exported more than $65 billion worth of goods and services, 93 percent of which were manufactured products.

As we celebrate Manufacturing Month this October, we must talk, too, about the issues facing our industry and our state. Chief among them is the rising shortfall in skilled workers who are ready for today’s high-tech, highly complex manufacturing jobs.

OPINION

As the Baby Boom generation retires, 30,000 manufacturing engineers and production technicians in Illinois will leave the work force each and every year between now and 2028. Finding skilled workers to replace must be a top priority of our educators and policymakers.

Today’s manufacturing doesn’t happen in the dingy or dark shop floors seen. American factories are among the most high-tech, innovative places on Earth — staffed by engineers and technicians, and even computer programmers who are busy writing the complex code that run technologically advanced machines.

To keep manufacturing thriving and to grow jobs here in Illinois, we must ensure that the talent pipeline remains loaded with young people ready to step into that demanding and increasingly technical environment.

That is why Boeing and the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association are working so hard to prepare the students for the jobs of tomorrow. We are working to ensure our kids are skilled in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — those fields that are critical to ensure America remains competitive.

Students who can apply scientific, technological, analytical and mathematics skills to today’s lessons and problems will excel in tomorrow’s workplace — whether it’s a NASA clean room or a Boeing computer-assisted-design workstation.

If we keep saying we don’t make anything in America anymore, then eventually we won’t. Today, only 35 percent of parents encourage their children to pursue careers in manufacturing. Why would we expect our nation’s next generation to pursue careers in manufacturing?

The best message to send to our next generation of workers is that high-tech manufacturing is a promising career path. In Illinois, the average manufacturing worker earns $81,000 a year in salary and benefits, nearly $27,000 more than the average worker in Illinois. Well over 90 percent of manufacturing workers have medical benefits. Those in the manufacturing sector have some of the longest tenure in the private sector.

The Illinois Manufacturers Association Education Foundation’s “Dream It Do It” campaign is designed to bring the facts to young people and boost existing efforts to ensure more kids graduate high school with the skills they need to succeed in high tech manufacturing. It works with students to chart “career pathways” that provide the education and develop the skills needed to prepare them to enter the high tech manufacturing workforce.

In 2015, “Dream It Do It” successfully engaged nearly half a million students and more than 75,000 parents and teachers — creating partnerships that will help young people find great careers and help industry close the shortfall in high tech workers.

Together, we can ensure that Illinois has the talent to jump-start our economy, meet the demands of tomorrow and ensure our state continues to be a hub of manufacturing.

Greg Baise is president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. John Blazey is vice president of global corporate citizenship at The Boeing Company.

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Opinion: High-tech manufacturing needs prepared Illinois students

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