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Building the Road as We Travel

02 May 2011

Austin Polytech and the effort to create pathways out of poverty for Chicago’s Westside youth

"We do not aspire to economic development as an ends but as a means"

Don Jose Maria Arizmediarrieta

The road that led to the 2007 founding of Austin Polytechnical Academy, a public high school on Chicago's Westside with a focus on college and career preparation linked to engineering and manufacturing, started back in 1990 when the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Local 738 and the Garfield/Austin Interfaith Action Network (GAIN) approached the Center for Labor and Community Research (then known as the Midwest Center for Labor Research). They had a problem in their west side community and they needed some research and strategy tools to help look for a solution. The parent company of the E.J. Brach's Candy Co., the largest candy manufacturer in the world at that time, was threatening to move production to Mexico and eliminate more than 2100 jobs due to a series of misjudgments by the relatively new parent company. [1] In short, Brach's owner's desire short-term profit gains would lead to long-term job and income losses for the workers and their community.

This narrative represents a scenario that replayed repeatedly thousands of times over in Chicago and the broader United States economy. Fueled by the research that Brach's was still a viable company despite recent crises, the Center for Labor and Community Research (CLCR), IBT and GAIN spearheaded a Save Brach's Coalition which organized about 100 Chicago and Westside community, civic and religious organizations. [2] Although their efforts were not enough to ultimately save Brach's which closed its Chicago plant in 1996, it brought a magnifying lens to the critical role manufacturing has in the local economic development and quality of life to the residents of Austin, whether they worked directly in manufacturing or not. To this day, unlike any other sector, manufacturing brings middle-class incomes, creates 4-6 new jobs in related sectors for every 1 manufacturing job created, increases local tax bases especially since most manufacturing companies are domestically if not locally owned, privately-held, small businesses. [3]

In 2001 CLCR and the Chicago Federation of Labor published the report "Creating a Manufacturing Career Path System in Cook County." The report detailed the gaps in the workforce development and training system as it related to the manufacturing industry, including: the lack of standards to define and measure quality training, the public school system and community colleges were not teaching the skills required by employers, and no identifiable recruitment mechanism to attract young people into the field.[4] The report also outlined a proposal to address these issues, the ideas of which lead to the creation of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council in 2005, a multi-sector coalition of government, labor, business, and community leaders to make Chicago the global leader in advanced manufacturing. The Renaissance Council's first major project was the development and design of Austin Polytechnical Academy which opened in 2007 as a Chicago Public High School.

But Austin Polytech is not just another vocational school trying to plug Kid A into Job B. Austin Polytech was inspired by international best practice of community and economic development, where a school serves to catalyze community development instead of simply a portal for the best and brightest to leave the community.

For example, in 1945 in the Basque region of Spain, a small engineering high school was founded by a catholic priest, Don Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, where the small town of Mondragon laid in ruin, Arizmendiarrieta believed that if the youth learned skills in engineering and manufacturing fused with Catholic social values they could start businesses that could help improve the community through providing gainful employment and create the wealth needed for rebuilding the community infrastructure such as creating a bank, a university and other services. Five of the first graduates of this technical high school did start their own manufacturing company making small stoves that soon successfully sold all over Spain. This first company was created as a worker cooperative grounded in community-building values which ensured profits were reinvested back into the business to provide more jobs, foster new businesses, and back into the broader community. The result of this visionary effort is the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation which is a network of 100 cooperative businesses employing over 100,000 people in Spain and around the world, still espousing the same values of community-driven economic development.[5] When CLCR sponsored a trip to take 9 Austin Polytech students to visit Mondragon back in 2009, students observed the lack of visible poverty, clean streets and quiet neighborhoods, and were surprised to learn that almost everybody who wanted a job had a job.

Today Austin Polytech is still in its formative stages with an active mix of strengths and weaknesses. What makes Austin Polytech unique is that our mission of educating the next generation leaders in advanced manufacturing places us in a vibrant intersection of mutually beneficial interests from a variety of stakeholders that has broad implications for community-driven development and revitalization.

Manufacturing has a mixed legacy. Although always credited for creating a middle class in the United States, manufacturing also has an ugly history of dangerous and dirty work relegated to people of color due to pervasive racism. [6] When hundreds of thousands people lost their jobs in the wave of plant closings in the 70s and 80s, the positive effects of manufacturing such as jobs and living wages evaporated or left town while leaving its negative effects behind; empty factory shells such as the Brach's site today, industrial toxic contamination, and massive urban blight.[7] Thus understandably so, when the Renaissance Council and CLCR came to the Austin community proposing a new public school that would be dedicated to preparing its youth for careers in manufacturing, the community feedback on our proposal was mixed to say the least.

Critics from the community were quick to accuse us trying to repeat the patterns of the manufacturing of yesteryear, targeting African-American youth to serve as the grist for the mills of industry. Critics from the business sector expressed deep concerns and cynicism of the ability of public education (much less inner-city public education) to meet the needs of today's high-tech manufacturing industry. Critics from the educator community, including several who worked closely with or in the school, were skeptical and even hostile at the notion of connecting education to manufacturing convinced the industry was dead and careers in manufacturing only led to dead-end jobs.

However, through meticulous, methodical, persistent and sometimes frustrating engagement with stakeholders, CLCR was able to win over many of our critics, one person at a time, to understand the implications of what a school like Austin Polytech would mean for Austin. We talked about the Mondragon story. We talked about the importance of integrating college and career education; that all students regardless of academic abilities would benefit from rigorous college prepatory academics and college tours as well as from the value of contextual learning through hands-on career preparation experiences.[8] We talked about the nationally-recognized industry credentials students could earn while in high school. Individuals who earn National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) credentials can start in entry-level, career-track positions earning $12-16/hour.[9] We talked about the average income with benefits in the manufacturing industry which averages $64,000/year compared to $55,000/year in the medical industry and a paltry $24,000/year in the retail industry.[10] We explained how manufacturing is no longer toiling assembly line work cranking out simple products, but manufacturers of today are designing and producing increasingly sophisticated and precise components that go into the most advanced technologies in the world from MRI machines to wind turbines.[11] We talked about the opportunity of business ownership. CLCR did a study that surveyed 800 manufacturing companies in Chicago, and of those with an owner 55 and over, 40% were in risk of closing solely because there was no successor.[12] Many of these companies are family businesses where the son or daughter did not want to take over the business manufacturing a product in the inner city where the family created their wealth, preferring instead careers in finance and investment if they were interested in business. We also shared our vision for the development of an innovation center complex to facilitate research and development for the wind turbine industry. We firmly believe that Austin could one day be a global leader in the development of technologies and components for the renewable energy industries. In this vision Austin Polytech would be an integral part in cultivating the next generation of talent who develops these technologies and starts the businesses to manufacture them. Austin Polytech can be the springboard for the re-development of the community guided by the skills and values of this generation of students--development that will be economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable and restorative.

Most importantly, the most effective tool we have used to win over increasingly more support from our stakeholders is through the ongoing development of a dynamic program to directly engage Austin Polytech students. Most of our 380 students who attend the school have never heard the word "manufacturing" or "engineering" much less had any concept of what those kinds of careers entailed before enrolling in our school. At minimum, all students take the required 3-4 years of pre-engineering courses and a NIMS machining course. To date, 73 Austin Polytech students have earned a NIMS credential.

CLCR staff work closely with APA teachers and administrators to coordinate a variety of career-exposure activities. Most freshmen and sophomores go on at least 1-2 manufacturing facility or trade show fieldtrips per year. For example, last summer we took incoming freshmen to Winzeler Gear, a factory facility full of sunlight and highly sophisticated machinery complete with art on the walls and highly engaged employees. There we were, standing on a lacquered floor in a glass-walled conference room overlooking the plant floor with humming, automated million-dollar machines. As Mr. Winzeler addressed the students, he pointed to the several engineers who worked on his staff in which he had paid for their Masters degrees. He explained how his most significant challenge in running his business is finding employees who not only have the specialized skills he needs but who also have the drive and capacity to become innovators within his company and in the field where the company competes. Winzeler Gear and millions of today's manufacturers, no longer run on people power, they run on innovation. Innovation is what keeps them competitive and profitable in today's globalized economy.[13] Although Mr. Winzeler is personally a generous man, he makes the time to meet with our students to explain these facts of his business to them not out of charity but for the self-interest and preservation of the future of his company that is dependent on young people like those freshmen becoming inspired to play a leadership role in the advanced manufacturing economy.

For junior and senior year students we focus on job shadowing, summer jobs and internships. Last summer we found employment for 30 students in the manufacturing sector. With each activity there is a significant amount of preparation and evaluation work to ensure a high quality experience for students and the manufacturing company hosts. We experienced a steep learning curve to meet and adjust the expectations of all stakeholders involved; students, teachers, administrators and manufacturers, all of which have distinctive needs and interests and none of which have ever worked with each other before in this capacity. We look for opportunities to bring manufacturers into the classroom to work with teachers on finding common intersections between lesson plans and real-world applications. We facilitate extracurricular leadership development programs for students such as SkillsUSA that looks to develop leadership and soft skills. We developed a unique partnership with John Marshall Law School who is known for their excellent intellectual property law program. A professor and several law students started a patent law workshop with 12-14 students over the last 2 semesters which included a mock trial at the law school where 12 of our students earned collectively $67,000 in scholarships towards John Marshall Law School tuition. We just started a new leadership in sustainability initiative in which 10 freshmen are learning about environmental sustainability in terms of their community and careers in the green economy. We want our students to see the full breadth of possible careers in manufacturing, from the machinist to the doctorate in nanotechnology, from the engineer to the business owner, from the patent lawyer to the environmental sustainability expert.

Here is the Austin Polytech intersection. On one side we have a disenfranchised community, with an unemployment rate of over 20%, where the average incoming 9th grader reads at the 4th grade level, and one of the highest rates of violent crimes in Chicago.[14] On the other side we have small manufacturing companies, most of which are succeeding and even expanding despite the recent recession.[15] However as described with Winzeler Gear, the most significant challenge these companies face is the lack of skilled employees.[16] At Austin Polytech we are in the process of creating a nexus that in the short term provides our students' access to skilled, living wage career paths and in the long term cultivates a fertile landscape for leadership development, business ownership and entrepreneurship that can fuel community revitalization.

Although the Austin Polytech story continues to emerge, we are now working with leaders in the in the San Francisco Bay Area Manufacturing Renaissance Council to explore the possibility of replicating the Austin Polytech approach in West Oakland. We hope we can help guide others through the opportunities and challenges inherent to this model - not only to create clear pathways out of poverty for low-income, people of color communities or to keep the United States on the leading edge in the global economy, but to effectively use economic development as a tool for long-term community revitalization driven by community values.

March 2, 2011
Erica Swinney
Center for Labor and Community Research (CLCR)


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