STERLING – The routine hum of classroom activity for about 300 freshmen was replaced with the whirring and stomping of heavy machinery producing thousands of pounds of steel parts.
The Sterling High School freshman class fanned out across the city Wednesday touring manufacturing sites and getting a taste of the state's $100-billion industry that makes up about 10 percent of the Illinois workforce.
Frantz Manufacturing Co. was one stop on the National Manufacturing Day tour for a few dozen students, who saw the ins and outs of production from furnaces operating at 1,750 degrees to bins filling with freshly made steel ball bearings.
"Any good company depends on good people," operations engineer Carl Boehm said.
Rob Urbanski, human resources director for Frantz, advised the students to "take a full breath" of what high school has to offer to get a early start at identifying and building on their future careers.
"Find out what you like, and then you can move forward," he said. "Try to gear yourself toward what will make you successful."
The students were introduced to a variety of opportunities they have to further their education in high school and after graduating, including programs offered at Whiteside Area Career Center, Sauk Valley Community College, and Morrison Institute of Technology.
He said the students will have more of an impact on the future of manufacturing than they realize as developing their skill sets will be integral in progressing the industry.
A common strain for the some 200 manufacturing companies throughout the region and the thousands more across the nation is filling the skills gap in a community.
A skills gap is created when available jobs go unfilled because the applicant pool lacks the necessary skill set to fit the positions.
To address the gap, 13 area manufacturers, Sauk Valley Community College and the Whiteside Area Career Center partnered this year to create the Multicraft Technology Internship Program, which allows students to hone different trades while being employed at one of the participating companies.
Sauk Vice President Jon Mandrell said it's crucial to prepare students for their future careers and funnel them into the local workforce pipeline.
It's common for students to be undecided about their future field of work or study, but the sooner they find out, the more they can do to become specialized in an occupation, he said.
"You're all going to have that moment in your life when something clicks," he said.
Frantz plant manager Steve Gassman said giving the students an early look into the industry gives them a valuable head start in determining their career path.
"It's neat to be able to share this experience with them," he said.
Manufacturing tours will be conducted throughout the region during the rest of the school year for high schools including Amboy, Ashton-Franklin Center, Bureau Valley, Dixon, Eastland, Milledgeville, Newman, Ohio, Rock Falls and Polo.
Boehm said encouraging students to pursue manufacturing will allow the industry to grow and thrive.
"Manufacturing in the country has taken a pretty big hit," he said. "We need more interest in manufacturing to strengthen it."
By the numbers
Manufacturing in Illinois
Accounts for 13.4 percent of the state's total output
Employs 9.7 percent of the workforce
Provides 572,500 jobs
Generates nearly $100 billion annually
Pays an average wage of $81,000 a year
*Data provided by the National Association of Manufacturers