Volume 17 | Issue 10 | Year 2014

Metal manufacturing in the Chicago metro area is, quite significant. With over 3,700 firms producing a combined annual revenue of nearly $30 billion and employing over 100,000 individuals, it’s not only a major manufacturing hub in the Midwest, but a key component in what fuels the region’s overall economic engine.

So when the federal government launched its ‘Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership’ (IMCP) program last fall, an initiative designed to bolster the foundation and future of some of the nation’s most impactful regional manufacturing clusters, it came as no surprise when the Chicago Metro Metal Consortium (CMMC) was subsequently designated as one of such in June. Representing an unprecedented collaboration of more than 60 public and private partners within the seven counties of northeastern Illinois, the alliance has since taken an aggressive and comprehensive approach towards ensuring that the region, often considered as the “crossroads” of the United States, can continue to serve and excel in meeting the evolving demands of domestic and global industry.

Over 70 communities applied for IMCP designation, but only 12 were selected. Led by the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development, the consortium submitted an extensive proposal designed to tackle current challenges being faced by the surrounding community, as well as how the region would address widespread issues facing U.S. manufacturing in the future, like workforce development and its role in the face of an increasingly higher amount of companies planning to reshore their businesses within North America.

“When applying for the IMCP designation, applicants had to come from areas with deep-rooted manufacturing presences,” says Michael Jasso, director of planning and development for Cook County, adding, “Because, through the IMCP and other federal programs, the government wanted to identify existing clusters and strengthen them as a way of fortifying the United States’ future economic success.”

The Chicago Metro Area holds a population of over 10 million, with Cook County itself responsible for 5.1 million of such individuals. “It’s the second most populous county in the United States after Los Angeles County but historically, Cook County had been largely focused primarily on public safety and health,” says Jasso, adding, “However, under the leadership of our President Toni Preckwinkle, we realized there was an expanded role the county could play in driving regional growth, and so she convened with the city of Chicago and the collar counties that surround Cook County and discussed with everyone how they could collaborate to drive a strategy focused on greatly improving our manufacturing presence and competitiveness, an opportunity afforded by the IMCP and one that led to the creation of the CMMC.”

The resulting success of the interactions produced an approach with two overarching goals in mind. “The CMMC decided that the most impactful approach would be to target the two largest segments of the metal manufacturing cluster—metalworking and production technology and heavy machinery—and prioritize efforts on growing a skilled workforce, promoting exports, and innovating for the future.”

Tackling exports in particular is important, because while the city of Chicago ranks as the 3rd largest economic enclave in the country, the intensity that they export is far below what a region of their size could be engaging in. “Chicago Metro is the only place in the country where six of the seven Class I rail lines come together, so the huge amount of container traffic really provides a limitless potential of business coming in and out,” says Irene Sherr, director of legislative affairs for Cook County.

Outside of a massive influx of regional and international traffic, Sherr says that another one of the key factors of manufacturing in the Chicago Metro Area is the presence of a large number of small business owners. “Out of the 3,700 metal firms we have in the region, over half of them have less then ten employees,” she says, continuing, “and we knew that it was our job to help these smaller companies increase their visibility and depth of connection to some of the larger firms, who are always looking for new suppliers.”

As a response, the CMMC has orchestrated a number of interactions between the large and small business metal manufacturers, providing arenas in multiple instances where executives from the two sides could come together and discuss strategies, tips, and potential partnerships. Most recently, the CMMC has organized a series of ‘matchmaking’ events to be held throughout Northern Illinois, to serve as “speed-dating” opportunities for suppliers and end users. “Participant firms from across the region will be given structured opportunities to network with potential customers and suppliers by sharing information, samples, and more,” says Sherr.

In addition to working to increase the web of partnerships between its regional manufacturers, the consortium will also be potentially organizing a number of similar events where students at the high school level would be able to interact with manufacturers and learn more about what a career in such would mean. “Workforce development, as we noted in our proposal, is one of our key focuses, and unfortunately the reality today is that a lot of these students at the high school and lower levels have a misguided view of what a manufacturing career entails and can provide,” says Jasso, adding, “so by bringing these students into an interactive arena with these manufacturers, they are able to get the facts and realize the wide number of benefits it can provide.”

In fact, he says that the International Manufacturing Technology Show, held in Chicago in September, served as one of the opportunities for these interactions to occur. “McHenry County, a partner of the CMMC, bussed over 1,400 high school students to the show, with the transportation costs largely covered by the county’s manufacturers,” Jasso, says, adding, “The students were able to be taken through the convention and speak with a number of different manufacturers, which went a long way in changing many of their perceptions about manufacturing.”

Jasso says that as manufacturing continues to make a resurgence in Chicago—and the rest of the country by extension—the need to have a skilled workforce in place is an absolute necessity. “You have a large population in the Baby Boomers getting ready to retire soon, and when you add their numbers to the expected influx of companies opting to reshore, there is a significant void that needs to be filled, and the consortium has made this one of its chief focuses going forward.”

And yet, he and Sherr are extremely confident in their region’s ability to do so. “In addition to the IMCP designation, Chicago received a Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) designation from the federal government, which brought $70 million in funds to strengthen our manufacturing pillars in the region,” he says, adding, “ I think between these two opportunities, we have the cooperation and support, both federally and locally, to ensure that Chicago and its surrounding counties will continue to grow and foster its already impressive manufacturing presence, and elevate it even more in the coming years and decades.”

The Chicago Metro Area is just one of twelve IMCP-designated communities. To learn more about the overall program, as well as what some of the other communities are doing in their respective regions to improve their present and future manufacturing presences, click on the following links. (IMCP Summit, New York Finger Lakes Region, the Tennessee Valley, Washington Puget Sound).

About the IMCP Program
The Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP) program is an initiative designed to revolutionize the way federal agencies leverage economic development funds. It encourages communities to develop comprehensive economic development strategies that will strengthen their competitive edge for attracting global manufacturer and supply chain investments. Through IMCP, the federal government is rewarding best practices – coordinating federal aid to support communities’ strong development plans and synchronizing grant programs across multiple departments and agencies. Non-designated communities nationwide can learn from the best practices employed by these designated communities to strengthen American manufacturing. For more information, visit http://www.eda.gov/challenges/imcp/.

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