Skokie school focuses on high-tech manufacturing
State Rep. Lou Lang (left) talks with Tom Peters, director of business operations at Symbol, a manufacturing job training facility, during an Oct. 12 tour in Skokie.| michael jarecki ~ for Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 9, 2012 6:02AM
SKOKIE — Gone are the days when dark, dirty and dingy factories characterized American manufacturing, said Diana Peters, executive director of Symbol Job Training Inc.
She said today’s companies boast pristine facilities with high ceilings to support a highly skilled labor force.
Peters’ Skokie-based school is preparing the next generation of workers for manufacturing jobs that are more technical than in years past. Assembly-line work may have been outsourced, she said, but the manufacturing industry overall is not dying.
Instead it’s evolving.
“Manufacturing is the backbone to our country, and that’s more true in Chicago than anywhere else,” Peters said. “There’s no way it could leave us.”
Symbol’s management team changed the company’s gears in 2005 after realizing the growing need for training workers for manufacturing work involving computers. Peters’ Russian-immigrant father established the school’s precursor, a tool and die shop, in 1985.
While the company does some of the same work for a select group of clients, its focus has shifted primarily to instruction and job placement.
Though 9 percent of Illinois residents today are jobless, companies are struggling to find workers to man their machines, Peters said, indicative of an industry gap between skilled labor and formalized vocational school training.
“We’re doing something revolutionary because manufacturing companies really need us,” Peters said. “We always say we’re fighting the good fight to keep manufacturing strong in America.”
Symbol enrolls about 120 students a year in its 4-month-long program, which specializes in teaching computer-aided machining, or CNC.
Less complex than a standard laptop, the computers operate on a numbers-only system, Peters said.
Hands-on training means class sizes are small: no more than five students at a time are assigned to machine training.
Interest in and need for manufacturing work has grown so much that Symbol relocated to a larger facility at 8151 N. Ridgeway Ave. to accommodate increasing enrollment.
Many of its students are recent high school graduates and older adults who were laid off or are switching careers. Because work today involves less heavy lifting and more skill, an increasing number of women are entering the male-dominated field, Peters said.
Peters aims to triple student enrollment over the next few years to keep up with current work demands.
Symbol places 90 percent of its graduates in markets of all sizes around the Midwest, from Peoria-powerhouse Caterpillar to Acme Industries in Elk Grove Village.
Peters said good benefits and opportunities for overtime make manufacturing an employee-friendly industry. First-time operators earn $15 to $16 per hour; programmers could work their way up to six-figure salaries.
For a nation burdened with debt-laden and out-of-work college grads, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
“It really can change someone’s life without needing a four-year or two-year degree,” Peters said.