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Is manufacturing the answer to the joblessness that plagues parts of Chicago?

Chicago, like other parts of the nation, is witness to two seemingly contradictory trends: persistently high unemployment in parts of its low-income communities, and thousands of job openings that employers struggle to fill.

Could manufacturing be a key to bridging the gap?

In a new report, researchers from the Century Foundation and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute highlight the opportunity for manufacturers to address their talent needs by tapping into black and Latino communities experiencing high rates of joblessness.

Manufacturing had more than 58,000 job postings in the Chicago region over the year ending this March, more than all but three sectors, according to the report. The industry last year had twice as many job postings as hires, suggesting a high rate of unfilled openings, and about 16,000 unfilled openings did not require more than a high school degree.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Cook County was 15.5 percent among blacks in 2016, compared with 7.3 percent for Hispanics and 4 percent for whites — and joblessness is much worse in some neighborhoods and among some demographic groups. For example, 37 percent of 20- to 24-year-old black men in Chicago were neither working nor in school in 2016, compared with 5 percent of white men in that age group.

Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said he was struck by the ample entry-level opportunities in manufacturing even as the industry becomes more technologically sophisticated. Though blacks and Hispanics were disproportionately affected by the decline in manufacturing jobs over the past several decades, that decline has stabilized and new opportunities are being created, in part because 1 in 3 manufacturing workers are over 55 and retiring.

“People need to look at manufacturing as a growth opportunity and a growth sector,” Stettner said. “There was a view that this was a sector of the past, and, no: It’s a sector of the future.”

Manufacturing employers, union leaders and workforce development professionals gathered for a daylong summit Wednesday at UIC to discuss how to satisfy both the needs of the industry and the communities.

There are myriad challenges to address, including transportation. Many manufacturing jobs are not near the communities where there are high rates of joblessness.

Andrea Zopp, CEO of World Business Chicago, said lack of quality education leaves many graduates from Chicago’s high schools ill-prepared for manufacturing jobs that require basic math skills.

And many people aren’t aware of opportunities in manufacturing or that they would be qualified for them. Erica Swinney Staley, director of operations at Manufacturing Renaissance, a nonprofit that runs a career pathways program, said marketing suffers because funders want their money to go directly to services.

“It’s not funded and in fact it’s frankly looked down upon as unnecessary overhead,” she said.

There are efforts afoot to raise awareness of the opportunities on both sides of the hiring table. A group of Chicago-area ministers on Wednesday announced the formation of Ministers for Manufacturing, which will advocate for investment in education and training in manufacturing.

“We’re concerned about the lack of livable wages and employment in our communities and we see manufacturing as a way to build the middle class,” said the Rev. Anthony Haynes, chairman of the ministers group. “We want to use our power of influence to get the public and private sector to support funding this kind of initiative.”

A state bill passed by the House in April calls for the Illinois State Board of Education to fund training for high school students in advanced manufacturing skills. The bill, which has been sitting in a Senate committee since, calls for funding three-year programs in at least 12 Illinois public schools where the youth unemployment rate is at least twice the national average.

Yet more needs to be done to make manufacturing jobs accessible to communities with a lot of poverty and violence and few connections to the industry, said Joshua Brooks, a coordinator with the Young Manufacturers Association, an arm of Manufacturing Renaissance that provides a support network for people who have gone through the nonprofit’s programs. Many people can’t afford even to go to community college, so one key is to provide paid training, so trainees receive a paycheck while they learn the necessary skills, Brooks said.

Getting young people to engage requires a community approach, he said.

“Some of the guys who are on those corners, they aren’t necessarily there because they’re trying to make money, but because they found support in one another,” Brooks said. “This (community involvement) is saying … here’s something where it’s not just some older guy telling you, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do,’ this is a camaraderie of your peers who are working legitimate jobs.”

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