DECATUR — Local job trainers and the business community are mobilizing to make sure 250 open positions at Decatur's Caterpillar Inc. facility get filled, jobs for which local manufacturers have struggled to hire.
Dozens of job seekers showed up at Richland Community College on Thursday to take advantage of a comprehensive recruiting event that moved them through multiple steps of Caterpillar's hiring process.
"It's basically a monthlong process in a day," said John Oliver, director of workforce development at Richland. "They won't leave with a job, but they could leave with an interview."
Lisa Miller, a spokeswoman for Caterpillar, said the bulk of the local hiring is for welders and machinists, as well as some quality auditors.
While the company has endured several waves of layoffs and hiring during the past 10 years, Miller said Caterpillar's current total workforce is about 3,000 in Decatur.
Miller would not say whether the new positions will be involved on new production lines in Decatur set to manufacture large-wheel loaders and compactors.
That equipment was previously made in Aurora. Caterpillar announced in April 2017 that the company was moving 500 jobs from Aurora to the Decatur plant by the end of this year. The Decatur facility already builds the world's largest off-road dump trucks.
The recruitment effort on Thursday came from a collaboration between Oliver, Macon County's employment office, and the Greater Decatur Chamber of Commerce, which was able to recruit volunteers.
"The Chamber had sent an email out asking for people to help," said Melanie Schelling, a State Farm Insurance agent. "I figure it's the best couple hours I could spend all year."
Most of the job seekers at the event needed some assistance with getting through Caterpillar's online portal, volunteers said.
"Everybody I've worked with I've had to help set up a new email, new passwords and then you have to set up one with Caterpillar, too, because Caterpillar will send all their information that way," said Connie Moon, a manufacturing instructor at Richland.
Rocki Wilkerson, executive director of Workforce Investment Solutions, which handles the county's job training programs and unemployment benefits, said the event's turnout was excellent.
"We had our biggest group first thing this morning, which tells me people are eager," she said.
The difficulty in filling manufacturing positions in Decatur is not unique, according to Oliver.
"This is nationwide; there's a shortage in these fields," he said. "If there's people — they're just not happy with their job working $12 and hour and not moving up. This is a great opportunity to get back up to what I like to call a livable wage."
Oliver said the Caterpillar jobs were likely to fetch between $15 and $25 an hour.
Lakisha Hardy, a machinist, said she was laid off from International Paper in Lincoln on Monday.
"I think they're looking for a persistent person, a hard worker with dedication." Hardy said she'd been told she might be able to earn $20 an hour at Caterpillar. "It's more than what I ever got paid before at a factory. That's a big plus."
Some applicants expressed concern about the company's local reputation for layoffs. As recently as August 2016, the company confirmed layoffs at the Decatur facility, though it didn't comment on specific numbers at the time.
But job trainers at Richland and Workforce Investment Solutions stress that welding and machinist work can lead to a career with longevity.
"These are careers, not jobs: You retire from these, you get benefits, you're bettering your family at the end of all this," Oliver said.