DECATUR — Rocki Wilkerson stood in her office drawing diagrams in the air to explain Decatur's current employment problem.

As executive director of Workforce Investment Solutions, Wilkerson is helping lead Macon County's effort to get as many unemployed people in the area as possible back into jobs, including 400 positions now open at Caterpillar Inc.

Wilkerson's illustration is a big hole in between two poles: the skills major employers like Caterpillar are looking for and the skills job seekers tend to have.

"When you think about having all those jobs and all the people that are not working, there's a big disconnect in the middle," she said. 

That is the Decatur marketplace in 2017 and across the U.S. in regions with a substantial manufacturing sector. Though the area does not have as many jobs as it did before the 2008 financial collapse, certain sectors are hungry for new employees. But finding the right people, say job trainers, is an uphill climb.

"Every economic developer I talk to deals with matching the skills with what the employer needs," said Ryan McCrady, executive director of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security reported Decatur’s unemployment rate for June at 5.9 percent, down from 6.6 percent this time last year. The Decatur metropolitan area had 51,500 nonfarm jobs in June, the same number as in May and June 2016.

Caterpillar clawing back

After announcing second-quarter results that blew past Wall Street expectations, Caterpillar said it was hiring again as orders continue to ramp up: “I think it's certainly a great change in where we've been over the last several years, and that's bringing back the workforce,” said Amy Campbell, Caterpillar's director of investor relations. 

Campbell said Caterpillar's total global workforce of full-time workers actually went down: dropping by 5,200 to 94,800, compared to this time a year ago. But the number of flexible, often part-time workers shot up, increasing by 3,500 to 16,400 over the same period.

Decatur's addition of production work that was previously done in Caterpillar's Aurora plant, estimated at 500 jobs, is a big reason for the spate of hiring, but Campell said the global demand for products that company has done at its Decatur plant has "really shot up overnight."

That includes the largest off-road dump trucks in the world as part of its Resource Industries Division, which includes the Decatur plant on North 27th Street. “For the large mining trucks, we now expect production to be triple what it was in 2016," she said. 

The newest jobs may not all be full-time, but Caterpillar's job listings show many manufacturing jobs that are, though that can include "supplemental" or contract work that offers few benefits.

Wages on rise

Wages and salaries are not listed, but Larry Peterson, special projects consultant at Workforce Investment Solutions, said manufacturers are starting to offer higher wages for someone they feel will be able to learn and improve on the job.

"Three or four years ago you were still getting companies wanting to pay $10 or less. Now I've seen them gravitate up to 14, with the progression they can tell a person, 'If you stay with us, your advancements could be 18 to 20 with time," he said.

Workforce Investment Solutions targets two major populations through mostly federal grants:

  • People who live close to or below the poverty line and struggle in and out of largely minimum-wage work;
  • Laid off workers who usually have a more marketable skill set and tend to be older.

The latter category tends to find work faster, job trainers said.

But the trainers and consultants trying to connect those people to Decatur's major employers say as much as they are trying to tailor their services to people with high needs, many lose motivation and fall through the cracks.

One of Workforce Investment Solutions' many services is a general orientation for people who come in for a variety of reasons, usually to collect unemployment insurance through the state's Department of Employment Security, which is in the same office.

"It's just general, what we do how we do it, giving job seekers information on how to access training, and so the next steps would be fill out this application and then come back for testing," said Robyn McCoy, Workforce Investment Solutions' former executive director, who still helps Wilkerson. In that next step, "We lose about 50 percent (of the original pool)."

The problem jibes with the demographic shifts in Decatur and across the United States. After high school age, more Americans are either struggling to get by on minimum-wage work or less or going to four-year colleges. Too many of the college-bound, said Wilkerson, are not looking at what the job market is offering.

"Think about all the people who go to college and spend tons and tons of money on education, and when they get out, there's nothing," Wilkerson said.

"One of the issues we have here in the U.S. — if you choose to go into manufacturing — I don't want to say people look as you as a failure, but, 'Oh, you need to go to college to make good money,' and that's just not true," Schwalbe said. "We've got clients with a two-year certification where you'd be making over $50,000 after two years, that's without a college degree."

For those who don't go for a bachelor's degree, the idea of simply coming into a well-paying industrial job of "punching a clock — no, that's not the worker today," said Barry Schwalbe, a trainer at Richland Community College. "The high-performance worker needs to be able to problem-solve, troubleshoot."

Workers adding tools

For that reason, Workforce Investment Solutions has introduced a "boot camp" class that goes over skills such as how to interview and look for jobs. "Getting together over a six-week course, we're proving to the employer that they can stick to something," Peterson said.

Still, for those who do manage to jump through the hoops and develop all the right tools to land a job that can lead to in-demand, marketable skills, the days of staying at a single employer for an entire career, advancing in a straight line pointing upward is less common.

"It used to be you get a job at a manufacturing company, you've got a job, you build the skills, you bid on different jobs, you go up through the company and have your wages and benefits. Unless there's a closure or something, you pretty much have a job," McCoy said.

Now, especially large companies such as Caterpillar are staying more flexible while keeping a much tighter grip on their margins, adding and dropping workers as needed.

"As orders come in, manufacturers are hiring people to make the product, maybe get some supply there, and then they may have to lay off those workers," McCoy said.

The post-war explosion of middle class jobs a few generations ago may not be around anymore, but job trainers say there are still great manufacturing opportunities.

The training resources in the area, including Richland and Workforce Investment Solutions have direct contact with the area's major manufacturers. Schwalbe said he even teaches skills to workers who are already employed at Caterpillar.

"Caterpillar has been a real good partner for (Workforce Investment Solutions). ADM's been a good partner, all of the midsize manufacturers that feed into CAT," McCoy said.

"(Caterpillar) came to us and held a two-day seminar on how to apply for the CAT jobs. I think 150 people showed up," Peterson said. "The interest is there."

"You don't have to be special to do (these jobs), you just have to have the attitude," Schwalbe said.

Reporter Tony Reid contributed to this story. 

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Staff Writer

Government-watchdog reporter for the Herald & Review.

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