Success Story: Marla “…learns something everyday…”

Shipping, receiving, operating machines, working in a company’s quality department. In nearly a decade of working in the manufacturing field, Marla Sanders has had many responsibilities over the years. Sanders participated in the Manufacturing Renaissance training program at the Austin Polytechnical Academy, graduating from the program in 2012 in its second graduating class.

Sanders grew up in  large family – she has nine brothers and three sisters. She and seven of her siblings grew up in Austin. Sanders says there were frequent incidents of violence in the community. “Something has to change,” she says of gang violence in the community. One of the things that changed for her, she says, is that she learned skills – soft and hard skills – needed to succeed in manufacturing.

Building a career

Sanders has worked in various positions in the manufacturing field. After participating in job shadowing activities through Manufacturing Renaissance at Guardian Equipment in Chicago, she worked in shipping and receiving for the company for two years (Guardian manufactures eyewash and shower products). After that, she worked for two years for a third-party company on the city’s southeast side called Flex-N-Gate, which made parts for Ford Motor Company. She was in the quality department, checking parts for the company. Later, she was a machine operator for Ferrara Candy Company in Chicago on the city’s southwest side.

“Once I learned a job, I realized you just had to have common sense,” she says. “I learned that I can do this. And I did.”

After taking a break, Sanders resumed her work in the manufacturing field in 2021 for Altium Packaging, a large plastic container company and supplier of packaging in West Chicago, where she works as a quality inspector.

Learning key skills

Sanders says that her experience with Manufacturing Renaissance helped prepare her for multiple positions in the field. “They made sense of it,” she says. “Basically they take you step-by-step – teaching life skills, comprehending work areas. We also went to different companies and took tours. That helped me learn about what I was getting into, and I was able to ask questions. That made it easier.”

“This is the perfect program if you want to go into manufacturing,” she says. “It’s a great program.”

When it came time to look for a position, she adds, Dee Dee Jones, Industry Coordinator at Manufacturing Renaissance, helped her put together a LinkedIn profile. “I found that there are a lot of jobs in the field,” says Sanders.

When she participated in the program, Sanders was one of two women in her cohort. “We can do this as well – or better – than the men,” she says with a laugh. Sanders has earned certifications from the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS) in measurement, materials, and safety. NIMS is a national nonprofit that helps organizations improve workforce performance by teaching them how to train and validate training with practical experiences that reflect what employees face on the job.

While Sanders participated in the Manufacturing Renaissance program that later became Manufacturing Connect, she is now a member of the Young Manufacturers Association, which serves as both a network and a program for young adults, aged 18-29, who are pursuing careers in manufacturing, are in between jobs, in training, or are interested in starting a career in manufacturing.

“Marla is a hardworking person,” says Torres Hughes, program coordinator for the Young Manufacturers Association. “She walks the walk, and has really done great work.” Hughes and Sanders went to high school together in Austin.

Speaking out

Sanders has also engaged with leading elected officials and government officials on manufacturing issues. On November 3, Sanders shared a question about the importance of educating young people about and providing training opportunities in the manufacturing field at a meeting of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council. The meeting featured a presentation by Don Graves, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“People in my age group don’t know much about manufacturing as a good career option.. How can we  work with elected officials to spread the word about opportunities for training and careers in manufacturing?,” she asked.

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle responded by sharing information about current programs and confirmed that “there’s a lot of outreach we have to do to persuade young people, to inform young people about opportunities in manufacturing. Graves added that people have to “have to have the opportunity to learn more about the manufacturing sector.”

Sanders lives in Mount Prospect with her two boys, who are nine and five years old. When she looks at the future, she says she keeps in mind that “you can move ahead in companies in the manufacturing field more than in many other fields.” Down the road, she adds, she wants to get a degree in electrical engineering and go into management.

“In manufacturing,” she says, “you can learn stuff every day. You just have to ask questions.”

-Dan Baron