'New' manufacturing workers need strong math, reading skills

June 6, 2012

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Niala Boodhoo
Welding students at the Jane Addams Resource Corp.
Niala Boodhoo
Sal Ramirez, a Richard J. Daley College manufacturing student, in front of a CNC machine.
Niala Boodhoo
Daley College manufacturing program's CJ Sikora, left, and Ray Prendergast, right.

Over and over, we’ve heard that new manufacturing can help lift the economy and provide jobs. In his most recent State of the Union Address, President Obama called it part of the “blueprint” of the new economy. But those new manufacturing jobs require a lot of training. And to be succesful at that training – and eventually on the job – the modern manufacturing worker also needs strong math, reading and writing skills.

A few rows of students, each at a computer, listens intently as an instructor explains coding. This class at Richard J. Daley College on Chicago’s South Side is for people hoping to get manufacturing jobs.

Dexter Barnes is in the front row. Right now he works part time at FedEx. He’s hoping this manufacturing course will lead to more steady work. But before all of that, he needed a refresher in some basic skills.

So he entered into a special bridge program the college just created. The result?

"I must admit, I’ve now started improving my reading," said Barnes, laughing, as he talks about the newspapers and magazines he reads more of now. "I guess when I was younger, I kind of didn’t have the patience for reading."

Barnes thinks his better reading habits were sparked because the program was hands on and concentrated on manufacturing.

These bridge programs have become a growing trend in community colleges that are finding the need to teach basic reading and math alongside industry training.

That’s what helps prepare workers for people like Jim Hoyt. He could have a job for Barnes after graduation.  But Hoyt says from his perspective – on the other side of the desk – he sees many job applicants who really need help.

"I see a lot of issues with written communication – spelling, grammar, those type of things," said Hoyt, director of manufacturing for North American Tool in northwest Illinois. "That hinders as well, because in this type of work, you generally have to leave notes for the shift that comes after you."

The South Beloitte company makes specialized cutting tool parts for other manufacturers. The turn-around is pretty tight, usually, 24 hours. Workers there have to be quick on their feet.

"Moving into where this country is going in manufacturing around agility and speed," he said. "We’re expecting our machine operators to run 30 or 40 different jobs in their shift."

Starting pay can range from $12 to $17 an hour. North American Tool uses machines called CNC, an industry standard in manufacturing.  CNC stands for computerized numerical control, but calling these machines computerized is almost a misnomer. While the machines do lots of actual calculations, workers still need to understand and be able to compute some solid math.

"You need to have a math skill level that brings you up to basic trigonometry," said Ray Prendergast, who directs the manufacturing programs at Daley College.

But not just trignometry. Prendergast said students need to know some alegebra, understand Cartesian coordinate systems, and have reading skills – at the ninth grade level.

The college testing level for students measures them at proficiency for entry level courses - say an English 101 level. But Prendergast says "the majority of students" trying to get into his programs are not at those levels, for English or math.

That’s where these bridge programs come in. Daley College just began offering this remedial education program for manufacturing – the school also offers it for health care courses. For the manufacturing track, Daley students actually earn industry-recognized certifications while they attend the eight-week course, which is free.

Just down the hall from Prendergast's office, inside the CNC shop, six or seven students are unpacking the school's new virtual welding machine. They're the second cohort of the Bridge program, and they have to read the instructions and learn how to assemble it.

Sal Ramirez is among them. He had a 27-year-career as a machinist, mostly finishing products like Sears Craftsmen tools. Then the recession hit.

"And they closed," Ramirez said, simply, adding that they put "too many people" out of work.

Ramirez, is of course, one of those people put out of work. That was in 2010. He hasn’t been able to find anything steady since. What he hears, over and over from employers, is that he doesn't have CNC credentials.

CJ Sikora is Ramirez’s bridge instructor.  Sikora points out that CNC equipment is worth millions of dollars - and companies don’t want to take a chance training newbies on them. So they’re expecting job applicants to come knowing all the basic CNC coding.

"The kind of machine [Sal] worked on, they still have them, but they’re also controlled by computers," she said. "Now you’ve got to be able to read a computer screen, read the lines of code and figure out what that thing is doing."

In the past few years, these types of bridge programs have become more common across the state. The Jane Addams Resource Corp. is one of the pioneers in offering this type of programming locally. Since it started in 2008, the program has had 120 graduates.

Bernarr Patton is one of those graduates now enrolled in the Jane Addams welding program. As he stands with a welding helmet up, he tells me that he's learned how to read a Vernier caliper, and calculate the minute measurements needed for the trade.

"You’re measuring parts and some of these parts are so small," Patton said. "If you don’t know what ten-thousands of an inch is, take like a strand of your hair, and that’s like  probably like close to 20- or 30-thousands of an inch. It’s very, very small."

Patton has a criminal record. He says one of the reasons he wants to go into welding because he thinks it’s an industry that will still hire him despite his background. The bridge instruction helped Patton polish decimals, fractions and other computations.

And now, Patton hopes to be part of the newest generation of manufacturers. 

"Personally, I want to follow in my uncle’s footsteps," he said, adding that his uncle is an iron worker who has his own business. "And hopefully, when I get real good at it, pass it along to my kids, to my two sons that I have."

Patton continues: "You know, this is a trade, and can’t nobody ever take that away from you."