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Watch now: Local students are 'the future of manufacturing'

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DECATUR — With millions of new manufacturing jobs needing to be filled by the end of the decade, industry leaders are looking to recruit the next generation of creators.

A group of local middle and high school students were brought to Richland Community College on Monday to experience the Creators Wanted Tour, a partnership between the Manufacturing Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. 

The tour aims to promote manufacturing careers to young people, especially in manufacturing hubs like Decatur. 

“Manufacturers and their teams have a major challenge,” Manufacturing Institute President Carolyn Lee said on Monday. “There are just under 800,000 new jobs manufacturing in the U.S. right now, and our research shows that the industry will need to build more than four million by the end of the decade.” 

Students had the opportunity to hear from manufacturing leaders, meet representatives from multiple Decatur manufacturers — including event partners Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Caterpillar Inc. — and even take part in a manufacturing-themed escape room. 

A nationwide effort, the tour has stopped in just 12 communities across the country. Decatur was chosen because of how integral manufacturing is to the local economy, said Illinois Manufacturers’ Association President and CEO Mark Denzler. 

“Fifty percent of Macon County's economy comes from manufacturing,” he said. “Half of all our economic activity in this county is directly related to manufacturing, the single highest share of any county in Illinois.” 

Decatur students are “the future of manufacturing,” Denzler said. 

Some tour leaders also expressed their desire to recruit skilled and educated laborers from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the manufacturing sector.

“Not everyone has the perspective of or has heard from someone who looks like me, or is from the same place,” said Veronica Braker, ADM senior vice president of Global Operations. 

As a woman of color, Braker said she wanted to help the group of primarily Black students “see themselves in careers within manufacturing.”

“This is an underrepresented community,” Braker, who has a background in chemical engineering and over 25 years of experience in operations leadership, said after the event. “These jobs are rewarding. It offers (students) the opportunity to build the lives for themselves and their families that they want.”

Manufacturers’ workforces should reflect the demographics of the communities they serve, Braker said.

Preventing brain drain and encouraging students to stay in Decatur and Macon County are key to strengthening local workforces, Denzler said. One way he hopes to make local manufacturing jobs more attractive is by reshaping the public’s preconceived notions of what those jobs actually look like. 

“It could be someone on the production floor, it can be in engineering, it can be marketing communications, admin,” Denzler said. “We have to change that perception of belching smokestacks, that manufacturing is dark, dirty and dangerous. It's not. Manufacturers, they are clean and sustainable and high tech and diverse.” 

While wrapping up his comments to students on Monday, Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, said manufacturers all over the world help create ways to “make life better.” The students in the room, he said, might one day be able to do the same. 

“We cannot wait to see how you change the future,” he said. 

More community members will have the chance to learn about manufacturing opportunities in Decatur as the Creators Wanted Tour will be hosted at Richland through Wednesday. 


Contact Taylor Vidmar at (217) 421-6949. Follow her on Twitter: @taylorvidmar11. 


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