Julio Martinez is a plant manager for Kay Manufacturing in Calumet City, IL, outside of Chicago.   Kay Manufacturing does precision machining, producing parts for the Powertrain division of the automotive industry.   Julio has been an employee there for years, and has 18 years of experience in manufacturing in different facets.  He graduated from college on the East Coast with engineering and accounting and finance, and got his first job as a Plant-Manager-in-Training in Michigan. From there, Julio says, “I worked my way up, from production supervisor, quality engineer, logistics manager, up to operations manager.  I got a chance to see not only the front line but the back room, and understand the entire scope of the manufacturing business, from sales all the way to maintenance and janitorial.”

In recent years, Kay Manufacturing has partnered with Chicago nonprofit Manufacturing Renaissance, which helps for disadvantaged youth and people with criminal records learn manufacturing skills and access steady, middle class-wage manufacturing jobs.   Julio explains his experiences supporting, training, and supervising new employees from Manufacturing Renaissance:

“I remember back in High School taking shop class, and now they cut shop class, and kids are coming out of High School with very general skills. Manufacturing Renaissance’s approach is, how can we get kids involved in trade work, when they don’t have money to go to college.

“We’re also in the process of getting reclaimed individuals who are coming back from incarceration.  We’ve had some success.    I’ve been afforded many second chances, and I think it is important for everyone to get second and third chances.  Individuals got caught up.  Now it’s about bringing them in and teaching them that they’re more than just a cell mate, they’re a valuable asset to a company.  We have to build them up.  Because unfortunately, we learn that people who have been incarcerated, they have often been beaten down and their neighborhoods have been beaten down by poverty.  So for them to be in a positive environment is really foreign to them.

“It’s important that they learn how to conduct themselves in our environment.  We have our employees spend 3-4 weeks with a trained machine operator, to learn how to do the job.  Then we keep an eye on them and have meetings quite often, to see how they are doing with soft skills and how they are performing.

“A lot of the individuals we’re hiring don’t have the skills, but they’re smart.  Our inner city kids aren’t lazy, but they haven’t been exposed.  Manufacturing Renaissance is exposing these individuals to things they’ve never heard of in their lives, and they’re excelling.  They’re soaking up the knowledge on-the-job.  We just have to teach them to take the blinders off, and keep their vision open.

“People who have been released are looking to boost their skills, so we try to set it up so individuals have success in training modules. For example, I have a young man now who came to us, and had only worked at Einstein Bagels before, and then he went and got his metalworking certification.  He’s been with us for about a year, and it’s going great, now I’m going to put him a Supervisor-Training program with the goal of going back to school and maybe getting an Associates Degree or even a Bachelors degree.  That’s what it’s about, it’s about empowering them with self-worth, so they can say hey, I can be more than just a fast food manager, I can actually work in an international market.

“Because the manufacturing environment is a very intense environment.  The American manufacturing worker has to contend with way more than they did in the 70s, in terms of LEAN, production levels, etc.  Times have changed: now you work somewhere for 5 years and go where you’re able to be in a upward-mobility position.  Skills will get you by a little bit, but you need to continue to get educated and stay up to date.  So we teach our employees to think: now that you’ve become a machine operator, you may be good at fixing things, and want to work your way into a maintenance tech position. Maybe a factory moved 20 miles away, but you can go there.  You have to be mobile mentally and physically.

“Our owners want us to put individuals in a position to grow.  The human capital factor is even more important than the equipment capital.  So when we met the people at Manufacturing Renaissance and saw that passion we thought — we have to get involved.

“I came from a big family in the inner-city in NY, I was the only one on both sides of my family to go to college and do what I’m doing.  The rest of them got caught up, sometimes in drug activity, and I’ve been able to break that.  That’s why for me, it’s my goal to continue to work with others, whether it be in the South Side or West Side of Chicago, and tell these individuals that there’s another side to life than what you see on your street corner.  I believe that I’m lucky to have them.  It’s humbling.  When I hear their stories and see their families, it inspires me to keep the company growing and give them opportunities.  That’s what’s most important.

“I would challenge a business owner who says there are no American workers to hire.  I would say, everyone expects the public education system to take care of the skills gap.  But it’s not that – it takes a consortium of business and academia to come together to close the skills gap.  Businesses have to figure out what skills they need, develop job descriptions, and share with academia.  Some people develop a defeatist attitude, saying well, I have to go to Mexico or Canada to find skilled workers – and they spend millions of dollars setting up there.  If they actually invest that in training and academia, they could spend far less.   The railcar businesses have to get in the game. They can’t sit on the sideline anymore.  One, voice your concerns and two, figure out the solutions, what do you want and how do you want to get there. Aerospace, logistics, food service, all these industries have skills gaps, and we all need to be part of the solution.”