Introducing Millennials to Manufacturing Career Paths
Those of us fortunate enough to have attended vocational technical college or high school industrial arts class might look back on those days with nostalgia. The whine of the engine lathe, the smell of freshly sanded wood, the sizzle and pop as you pour molten aluminum into the mold for the candlesticks you’re planning to give Mom for her birthday—these are the sights and smells and sounds that stick in our brains long after the last school bell falls silent.
Matt Erbach, a manufacturing engineering instructor at Streamwood High School in Illinois, wants more young people to share in these memories. “I’ve always been interested in manufacturing, and today I’m one of those people that thinks every high school student needs an opportunity to create a tangible product with their hands, just to see whether it’s a career option or not. It's something they need to check off the list, even if they later decide they want to be an accountant or earn a history degree.”
He should know, he has one. After attending Harper College for several semesters in pursuit of an associate degree in manufacturing technology, he decided to leave school for a job as a machine operator at Swiss Automation Inc., a job shop in nearby Barrington. Eighteen months later, he realized he’d rather teach for a living than make parts, so applied at Northern Illinois University; in 2005, he earned a bachelor’s degree in history, as well as his teaching certificate.
It wasn’t long, however, before Erbach’s love of manufacturing reasserted itself. One year into a part-time job teaching history at an area high school, he applied for his current position at Streamwood. He hasn’t looked back since. “It was that last year that really drove it home for me, that manufacturing is where my heart is,” he said.
His students are getting the message. A group of them have twice earned the state champion title in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow competition, and Erbach is helping many others earn apprenticeships with manufacturers in Illinois. Erbach’s also an instructor in the Project Lead the Way program, has served as an adjunct instructor for the Tooling and Manufacturing Association (TMA), was just named a semifinalist in the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools 2018 Prize for Teaching Excellence, and is currently working on an international manufacturing project with the German American Chamber of Commerce and a trade school in Germany.
“I believe that what my students are doing is incredible, and I always try to show that off to the best of my ability,” he said. “There’s still a perception in the United States that manufacturing is a dirty job, and that if you don’t go to college it’s somehow a failure. I want to change that mentality. If I can get a kid excited about manufacturing—whether it’s running a machine or designing parts or programming or whatever—he or she is practically guaranteed a good paying, rewarding career. That’s what I love best about this job.”