Photo of Mieka Matthews, MC Coordinator and Isaiah McMullen, MC Participant at his high school graduation.
It started with an opportunity. When Isaiah McMullen was a student at the Academy of Scholastic Achievement, a nonprofit public alternative school on Chicago’s west side, he was interested in welding and manufacturing. A school counselor referred him to Manufacturing Connect, Manufacturing Renaissance’s Career Pathways program that prepares and supports in-school youth, ages 14-18, for careers in manufacturing. Students in the program met three times a week for an hour earlier this year.
Isaiah grew up in Chicago’s Humboldt Park community and now lives with his father in Jackson Park on the city’s west side. Like many who grow up in underserved communities in the city, getting through school was about far more than studying for classes. It was also about living in a community affected by gang violence and a lack of equity when it comes to education, opportunities, and a wide range of services.
Isaiah completed virtual technical training, job readiness training, and a paid internship in the Manufacturing Connect program. He also graduated as salutatorian from his school in 2021. He started working part-time, but successfully transitioned into full-time employment after a couple months, for Foster Works, a locally run, woman-owned custom sheet metal fabricator on the near west side. He started his job in packaging and shipping and is currently a production operator. His supervisors gave him high praise and are eager to get him training to learn to weld at the company.
Learning Key Skills
While the Manufacturing Connect program was held online during the pandemic, students were still able to participate and learn key skills for the workforce. Isaiah says he learned valuable measurement and blueprint reading skills. He also demonstrated what he had learned and received an accreditation from the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS), which develops skills standards for the industry. While participating in Manufacturing Connect, Isaiah designed a logo as part of a branding activity for a company, Best Fruit and Nuts, for the program’s Spring Break Internship.
For Isaiah, like others in the program, there’s another key piece to finding one’s way in the workforce – learning how to present oneself and make a positive impression on an employer. Isaiah says that the Manufacturing Connect team helped him do just that by working with him as he created a resume and coaching him for interviews.
“They were great teachers,” he says of the staff he worked with in the Manufacturing Connect program. “And this program helped me get a job right away.”
Changing the story about manufacturing
Manufacturing Connect is part of a changing story about manufacturing in this country. The field is far different than what some might believe after decades of plant closings that severely impacted the sector in the Chicago region and around the country. Now, there are many opportunities. In 2018, a study by the Century Foundation and the University of Illinois Chicago’s Great Cities Institute found that there were more than 58,000 job postings in Chicago in the manufacturing sector between April 2017 and March 2018. Many available jobs are with small manufacturers in Chicago. For young people like Isaiah, Manufacturing Connect is a program that can help them find work in the manufacturing sector.
While Isaiah is taking initiative, working to learn new skills and looking to the future, the kind of opportunities he and others hope to access are also part of a larger story. It’s one that has already involved many – including a school counselor, instructors with Manufacturing Connect, and people he works with every day. (The Academy of Scholastic Achievement is also a member of the Alternative Schools Network, an organization with a specific emphasis on inner-city children, youth and adults). Beyond that, Manufacturing Renaissance is playing a key role in a national movement to create opportunities through the Manufacturing Renaissance Agenda, a coalition that is advocating for a stronger and more equitable sector.
This fall, while working at Marco Lighting, Isaiah also plans to start a one-year welding program at the Universal Technical Institute, which is based in Lisle, IL. Later, he hopes to complete an automotive training program at the Institute.
These days, Isaiah is getting ready for next steps and a future in the workforce. “I really want to be a fabricator of cars at some point, and open up my own shop,” he says. He also has a couple of things to share with others who may be looking for opportunities in the manufacturing sector. “You have to be really hungry for it,” he says, “and patient as well.”