SPRINGFIELD — David Del Castillo worked on an assembly line at the Knapheide Manufacturing Co. in Quincy for five years, until the economic downturn caused the company to lay off 185 employees in April 2009.

By Anthony Brino

SPRINGFIELD — David Del Castillo worked on an assembly line at the Knapheide Manufacturing Co. in Quincy for five years, until the economic downturn caused the company to lay off 185 employees in April 2009.

Some 400,000 Illinoisans lost their jobs in the Great Recession from February 2008 to January 2010 and 118,000 of those losses were in manufacturing, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

After earning an associate’s degree in advanced manufacturing, Del Castillo, who lives in Quincy, returned to Knapheide truck plant and has doubled his income and responsibilities.

“It’s neat, because it’s doing a lot of logistics, computer programming and chemistry, like testing anti-rust paint,” said Del Castillo, a former Marine and father of two teenage boys. He said that in his previous job at Knapheide, he put together parts of the truck bodies as they came by on an assembly line.

Del Castillo is the type of skilled worker manufacturing companies desperately want, but cannot find.

“Companies are literally starving for qualified workers,” said Tucker Kennedy, spokesman for the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center, a nonprofit offering advice, training and technical expertise to Illinois manufacturers.

A survey of more than 1,000 employers nationwide found a wide gap in jobs and workers. Eighty percent of those surveyed said they cannot find enough qualified workers to fill open positions, according to a 2011 survey by the Manufacturing Institute, an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, a manufacturing trade group.The survey polled executives from 1,123 companies, half of those from industrial products companies.

Driven by advanced technology and globalization, manufacturing in the United States has evolved and is “vastly different today than it was even 20 years ago,” said Kennedy said.

“It’s much more of a computer-aided, collaborative process that requires math and science as well as good communication,” he said.

Kennedy said the industry, as a result, has undergone a “mid-skills gap” — a shortage of U.S. workers who have mechanical or technical skills that require industry training or government certification, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.

At Knapheide, “we get lots of applicants, but finding ones with the right skills has been hard,” said Jim Rubottom, the company’s vice president of human resources. He said most applicants do not have welding or machine-cutting experience.

Knapheide primarily makes the metal truck bodies for companies like AT&T as well as contractors, plumbers and carpenters.

Most of the company’s 850 manufacturing employees are welders, Rubottom said. Others, like Del Castillo, program and operate the computerized machines that cut metal precisely.
Castillo and a few others also operate “E-coat” (or electrocoating) cleaning and painting machines, which require only one or two people to run and do the work that, 20 years ago, required 20 people, Rubottom said.

The rise of advanced manufacturing and the decline of the assembly line have gone hand in hand, Kennedy said, and the Great Recession largely finalized the trend.

Between 2000 and 2010 — as more than 100,000 Illinois manufacturing jobs were lost — productivity rose 70 percent, from $82.10 to $139.71 per worker per hour, according to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

And Illinois manufacturers contribute the single largest share of the state’s economic output, 12.4 percent, according to the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.

In December, Illinois added 2,200 manufacturing jobs and last year added 12,000, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s most recent data.

Before Del Castillo was laid off in 2009, he was studying for an associates degree social work at John Wood Community College in Quincy. Then someone at the local unemployment office suggested he consider training in advanced manufacturing.

Del Castillo switched and finished the degree in two years. Now he knows how to read blueprints, write computer code for machines that cut metal and adjust the chemical composition of the anti-rust paint sprayed on truck bodies.

He recently was promoted at Knapheide, after applying for different jobs there and elsewhere. He said he turned down a position at the BASF chemical plant across the Mississippi River in Palmyra, Mo. “That would have also paid well, but the drive was a little far,” he said.

Del Castillo declined to say exactly how much he earns. But between his income and what his wife earns at a local nursery, it’s enough to live comfortably and well over double what he was making on the assembly line, he said.

The average manufacturing job in Illinois pays $64,000 a year, said Mark Denzler, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, or IMA, a trade group representing state manufacturers.

According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s Help Wanted Online database, 836 manufacturing jobs were open statewide in December, out of more than 100,000.

However, Jim Nelson, vice president of external affairs for IMA, who also works on education issues, said the database offers an approximate snapshot of job listings in any sector.

Manufacturing jobs are in demand, and likely will be for some time, Denzler said, because 300,000 baby boomers who work in manufacturing are expected to retire in the next decade — nearly half of the state’s 575,000 current manufacturing workforce.

IMA is working with community colleges statewide to train people in advanced industrial trades like welding and computer-assisted metal cutting, Denzler said.

Encouraging young people to pursue industrial trades and in-demand jobs like health care is part of Gov. Pat Quinn’s recently unveiled Illinois Pathways Initiative, a partnership between the public schools and businesses to improve middle and high school students’ science and math skills.

This initiative is part of Quinn’s larger goal to have 60 percent of Illinois adults with either a college degree or a career certificate by 2025.

“We have a mission in Illinois … to better support students and prepare them to get a good job in the 21st century economy,” Quinn said in a news release.

During the past decade or so, the Illinois government hasn’t really encouraged young people to consider industrial trades, said state Rep. Jill Tracy, R-Quincy.

“I think we’ve missed that niche, but community colleges have picked up what we missed,” said Tracy said.

Manufacturing used to be stigmatized as “dark, dirty and dangerous,” and parents and local school boards mostly focused on getting students into college, Nelson said.

“But that’s starting to come around. Local school boards are starting to partner with manufacturers and offer students another option,” Nelson said.

Quincy, in Adams County, has been at the forefront of manufacturing’s resurgence in Illinois.

Nationally, the unemployment rate stands at 8.3 percent; in Illinois, 9.8 percent; and in Adams County, 6.5 percent, the third lowest in the state.

A Mississippi River city ideal for exports, and the largest city for hundreds of miles, Quincy has been a manufacturing and commercial hub. When manufacturing picked up after the recession, John Wood Community College created new programs to train students with the skills the area’s 100-plus manufacturers are looking for.

Del Castillo said he finds his job both rewarding and challenging, adding that he has nothing but praise for college’s manufacturing program.

“I don’t know that I’d want an office job. I like working with my hands but using math and computers,” he said.

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