The first week began with orientation and safety, but by the end of it, some McHenry County teenagers were already working with laser cutters.
Nearly 100 high school students and recent graduates across McHenry County are getting a taste of what it’s like to work in manufacturing as part of a new 10-week internship hosted by the area’s Manufacturing Pathways Consortium.
The vision of the program is to get students experience in the field, as well as change the perception for those entering the workforce that manufacturing isn’t seeing growth, said Jessup Manufacturing President and CEO Robert Jessup, whose McHenry-based business is hosting interns this summer.
“In a lot of ways historically, manufacturing has gotten a bad reputation,” he said. “But manufacturing in McHenry County is thriving.”
Seven of the top 20 employers in McHenry County are manufacturers, according data from the McHenry County Economic Development Corporation. These companies employ over 3,500 people.
In the last 10 years, manufacturing in McHenry County has grown between 15 and 18%, said James Sitko, a regional project manager with the McHenry County Economic Development Corporation. Of the 8,500 or so businesses in the county, between 2,400 and 2,500 do some type of manufacturing.
Recent Cary-Grove High School graduate Amy Baron, 18, said she joined the internship program to have something to get her out of the house during the summer.
“I figured this was a good opportunity to get experience in an industry I have some interest in,” she said. “I want to get a better idea of how things actually work.”
Baron is currently at Jessup, which makes adhesive coated films, and is one of 20 businesses participating in the program. As part of the program, students work at businesses on a rotational basis, with many working at one business for five weeks and then switching to another.
Formed in 2019, the Manufacturing Pathways Consortium is made up of nearly 70 manufacturers, as well as representatives from each high school in the county and about 30 community partners, Jones said.
“The companies are all different sizes and different specialities within manufacturing,” Jones said.
Also participating is McHenry County College, which is serving as a quasi-hub for everyone participating in the program, MCC Associate Vice President of Workforce Development Catherine Jones said.
Woodstock-based BTM Industries Inc., one of the 20 businesses, has two interns this rotation, President Kyra Tillman said. She said she thinks the program is more about creating awareness around the industry than it is building the workforce.
“I think most people, even those who have lived here their whole life, don’t realize how much we make in McHenry County,” she said. “I think that’s a big deal for people to realize that. There’s a lot of opportunities here.”
While only a couple weeks into the program, the students are seeing several different aspects of the job. Tim Kasper, 17, who will be a senior at Cary-Grove High School next year, said since joining Jessup, he’s worked with a laminator and has cut material.
“I want to see what a manufacturing company does from the inside,” Kasper said.
Other jobs at Jessup will include slitting, die cutting, packaging and some office work, Jessup said.
At BTM, the interns have been shadowing those within the company, Tillman said. This has included shadowing the creation of programming for machines or shadowing someone using a machine itself.
“We’re moving them around … and exposing them where we can,” Tillman said.
As part of the Advance McHenry County grant program, which has the county doling out nearly $60 million in federal COVID-19 pandemic aid, the program received more than $700,000.
That grant is helping to offset the pay each student receives, Jones said. The hourly wage for the interns is $15 across the board with interns working 29 hours per week.
The funding from the county will secure the program’s first three years, with each year bringing in 100 students, Jones said.
To start looking for students, a call went out to each high school in the area, Jones said. Students that were eligible included those 16 to 18 years old.
Interviews began in April, which were followed by offers. Students began the internship during the week of June 6.
Coming out of that process, Tillman said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the interest from students, as more than 200 applied.
“I’m extremely proud of our county for doing this,” Tillman said. “I’m a third-generation owner here, and I want to see manufacturing continue [in the U.S.] and in McHenry County. I think this is a fantastic step in the right direction to start opening our doors to the younger generation.”