Joan Wrenn’s company, Hudson Precision Products, has seen many changes in its 100-plus years. Hudson started out making telegraph equipment and now churns out finger-tip-sized parts for iPod speakers.
But Wrenn can’t find enough skilled workers. That’s why she’s excited about Austin Polytechnical Academy, a new public high school that is set to open next fall in Austin, a depressed neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side.
Once home to large manufacturers such as Brach’s Candy and Schwinn, Austin is now checkered with liquor stores and dilapidated houses.
Its unemployment rate is 10.5%, compared with 4.4% nationally. Austin Polytech hopes to lower that statistic by supplying local manufacturers with the engineers, machinists, and programmers they need.
The school is the brainchild of a local coalition of business, education, government, and labor leaders dedicated to attracting high-tech manufacturers, and the high-paying jobs they create, to the Chicago area.
Austin Polytech is chartered as a “school of choice,” similar to a magnet school but with no entry exam. Wrenn and 22 other local businesses have pledged to provide guest speakers, summer internships, and classroom materials such as inspection tools and measuring equipment.
The plan is to teach the problem-solving skills required in today’s high-tech factories. “You need as much brainpower to be in manufacturing today as you need to be a lawyer or doctor or anything else,” Wrenn says. “It’s the same thinking skills.”
The school will prepare its graduates to attend two- and four-year colleges but also to fill entry-level production jobs. Supporters of Austin Polytech acknowledge that the school won’t solve their labor problems overnight.
But if it can provide students with basic skills like understanding blueprints and calculating angles, business owners say they’ll take the rest from there.
Photo by Saverio Truglia.