Mayoral Forum: A New Industrial Vision for Chicago

Mayoral candidates in Chicago came together on February 8 for a forum on a new industrial vision for an inclusive and thriving industrial sector. A wide range of issues were addressed at the forum, including the need for job training, federal investment in the manufacturing sector, ownership succession, and the importance of building a green economy. The forum was held at MxD, an innovative manufacturer in Chicago.

Participants in the event focused on the important impact of the public sector – including the mayor’s office – on manufacturing in the Chicago region.

While many candidate events around the city have featured high-pitched and sometimes combative debates that echo the city’s political history, the February 8 forum offered a wide-ranging discussion of pivotal issues facing the manufacturing sector. Candidates were in agreement on numerous key points. Notably, all agreed that the city should create an environmental sustainability department and a “czar” of industrial policy.

Five mayor candidates (out of nine who were invited) participated: Kam Buckner (State Rep.-26th District); Ja’Mal Green, neighborhood advocate and entrepreneur; Brandon Johnson, Cook County Commissioner (1st District); Roderick Sawyer, Alderman, Chicago City Council (6th Ward), and Paul Vallas, former Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools.

To watch a video of this mayoral forum, click here.

The mayoral forum was hosted by Manufacturing Renaissance, the UIC Great Cities Institute, the Chicagoland Manufacturing Renaissance Council, MxD, and North Branch Works. Juan Gonzalez, journalist, host of the Democracy Now news program and a Senior Fellow at the Great Cities Institute, moderated the forum.

Erica Staley, executive director of Manufacturing Renaissance, says that the event showed how many partners are working together to build the manufacturing sector in the Chicago region. “We’re building a manufacturing ecosystem, and the city of Chicago plays a key role in making that work. This forum brought together manufacturers, schools, workforce and social service providers, and sustainable development stakeholders.”

“Manufacturing is a critical component for a successful, inclusive, and equitable economy,” adds Dan Swinney, founder and senior advisor for Manufacturing Renaissance. “Its role in our communities is  unprecedented.”

Teresa Cordova, Director of the UIC Great Cities Institute (and former Chair of the Chicago Plan Commission) provided context for the forum – and why this issue continues to be urgent. Drawing on the practical work by the co-hosting organizations and research done by UIC Great Cities Institute, Cordova shared data about the history of manufacturing in Chicago and how the loss of jobs has impacted neighborhoods. GCI’s research on out-of-work and out-of-school youth and how challenges disproportionately impact minority neighborhoods strongly reinforced her point. Find Dr. Cordova’s presentation on a New Industrial Vision for Chicago here. 

Cordova, mayoral candidates, and others at the event emphasized current successes and the great potential for manufacturing in the city. She cited the growing power of advancing manufacturing as well as the fact that each manufacturing job helps create as many as seven other jobs.

Key Issues

The forum highlighted many issues that impact the sector.

Skills gap: Unfilled jobs and need for training: Research from the Great Cities Institute in recent years has shown that there are more than 50,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the city.

Need for training: A primary reason why jobs go unfilled, of course, is that there are not enough trained workers to fill them. Programs like Manufacturing Renaissance’s Career Pathways Services help show how technical and soft skills trainings prepare young people in underserved communities for manufacturing jobs.

One candidate noted that Chicago Public Schools currently provides vocational education to fewer than 200 students.

Public investment: A key topic at the forum was the need for greater public investment in training and education options. Many at the forum said that the city must be able to access more available federal funds to support training, education, and investment opportunities.

Environmental impact:  Participants in the forum also noted the growing importance of creating a green economy, and how current policies often have a negative environment impact on brown and black communities.

Ownership succession: Research has shown that in Illinois, 99% of manufacturing companies are owned by whites – and that thousands are retiring. This trend could lead to opportunities for Black and Latinx entrepreneurs – if inclusive policies make that possible. This topic came up during the forum and will be a prominent issue in the coming years.

Other key topics focused on retaining industrial land, reshoring jobs, and using tax incentives to benefit underserved communities.

Meanwhile, Ocie Duncan, who completed the Young Manufacturers Association program at Manufacturing Renaissance, shared his experience as he asked a question to candidates. “Manufacturing Renaissance was there when I needed it most,” he said. Duncan asked candidates about the public sector’s role in job training. Many candidates said they would use the mayor’s role to promote greater public investment in the manufacturing sector in Chicago.

For many at the event, the conversation also centers on creating new vision of manufacturing that builds on – but is also distinct from – the city’s industrial heritage. Key skills will not only be needed in existing technical areas, but in learning digital technology, working effectively in teams, and encouraging innovation.

Dan Baron