PONTIAC – A cooperative effort between the Greater Livingston County Economic Development Council and Heartland Community College is providing a more well-rounded workforce for the area's manufacturers, say those involved in the project.
The second group participating in the “Fundamentals of Modern Manufacturing” training program graduated earlier this month, bringing to 26 the number who have completed the six-week, 100-hour program since it began last May.
Eleven of the 12 students in the first class were employed within one month of graduation and Adam Dontz, the EDC's chief executive officer is expecting similar results from the second class.
Finding skilled, qualified employees is a key issue with economic development, Dontz said.
Manufacturing is the largest employment sector in Livingston County, with a dozen manufacturers providing about 2,500 jobs in the county, Dontz said.
“What we've done is married the business community with the academic community and, through that partnership, we've been successful,” he said.
A handful to students already had jobs when they started the program, but Dontz said the training makes them more valuable to the company and allows them to move up.
Paul Fogal, operations manager at Quanex in Chatsworth, which hired two members of the first class, said, “Both did well learning our processes.”
The plant, which primarily makes screens and doors for residential use, employs almost 100 hour and salaried workers. Other manufacturers involved in the program include Caterpillar, R.R. Donnelley, Exact Packaging and Technical Metals in Fairbury.
The training program has a strict attendance policy. No more than two absences are permitted.
Kaylee Mallaney, senior human relations generalist at Quanex, said attending class four nights a week for six weeks, sometimes having to travel out of town, is “a big commitment.”
The training the students receive and the dedication they show in completing the program, “puts them a step above the rest,” she said.
“I'm not necessarily looking for assembly line workers,” Fogal said. “I'm looking for someone who wants to come in and do their job diligently, starting at the bottom, and wants to work their way up into management levels.”
The program is the largest customized training Heartland has done for Livingston County and the largest such training driven by the private sector in Heartland's district, according to customized training coordinator Austin Grammer.
To provide the training, Heartland assembled seven different instructors from four institutions – Heartland, Illinois State University, Illinois Valley Community College and Lakeland Community College, Grammer said.
“Nationally, community colleges are at the forefront for providing hands-on training for manufacturers,” Grammer said.
Livingston County provided a $40,000 grant for the first class. The success of the first class attracted state and federal funds for the second, Dontz said.
Mitchell Nelson of Dwight, a mechanic for 22 years before the company he worked for closed, learned about the program from the unemployment office.
“It's been more than I expected,” Nelson said. “I've learned so much.”
The program included training in manufacturing processes and production, quality and measurement, maintenance awareness, safety and professional development, Grammer said. Hands-on training took place in Pontiac, at Heartland's Workforce Development in Normal and at the ISU's Caterpillar Integrated Manufacturing Lab.
The latter included working with robots.
Kevin Devine, ISU associate professor of technology, led the robotics section.
“It's an interesting collaboration between Heartland and ISU,” Devine said.
A $1.2 million donation from Caterpillar Corp. enabled construction of the robotics lab.
“We're working hard to leverage this donation to the benefit of all of Central Illinois,” Devine said.
An evening in the robotics lab didn't turn the students into robot operators or programmers, but allowed them to see what they're likely to encounter in manufacturing today, Grammer said.
“Robots are coming on line in so many businesses,” Grammer said. “It helps give them a broader understanding.”
Danielle Lang of Pontiac said, “The class has really opened my eyes” to various aspects of manufacturing.
A warehouse worker at Exact Packaging in Pontiac, Lang said she welcomed the opportunity to gain more knowledge.
Her mother, Maria Blair of Pontiac, warehouse manager at Exact, said, “It gives you a wide variety of skills to take back to the workplace."
If McLean County development officials or businesses want to do a similar program, it could be replicated and tailored to the county's needs, Grammer said.
“We're definitely receptive to any county,” he said.
Dontz is “highly confident” the Livingston County program will continue. But the key is to balance the student need with the employer hiring cycle so jobs will be available, he said.
Fogal said he “absolutely” hopes the program continues and plans to hire more of its graduates in the future.
He said the company was looking for "more rounded employees for new hires" and the Heartland-EDC program gave students "a great base of knowledge" and let the students see there is "room to grow."