Building Job Skills

Building Job Skills

A unique vocational training program matches workers with high-demand jobs in manufacturing.

With all the flying sparks, it’s easy to assume professional laborers are welding metal on a manufacturer’s shop floor.

But the Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC) is a vocational training center in Chicago’s Ravenswood Industrial Corridor. And its workers are, in fact, students whose industrious labor belies the hardships they’ve encountered. About half have served prison time, some are homeless, and many have found themselves with job skills that are obsolete in the current labor market.

“Imagine being a 42-year-old father and you’ve got three kids and you can’t take care of them because all of a sudden employers don’t need you,” says Guy Loudon, Executive Director of JARC.

For the past 20 years, the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation has supported JARC’s efforts to help such individuals earn not just jobs but lasting, well-paying careers in the manufacturing sector.

The numbers speak to JARC’s success: 90% of its trainees graduate, and 90% of its graduates land a manufacturing job. The average starting hourly wage is $13.31. While these positions are entry-level, JARC trains for jobs that offer authentic career paths. While graduates may enter the workforce as entry-level machinists and welders, they often move into positions that pay between $20.00 and $30.00 per hour.

90 percent of JARC's participants graduate, and 90 percent find full-time jobs in manufacturing.

Behind the numbers are the individuals—the people we at the Fry Foundation ultimately want to help. One JARC student, after serving time in federal prison, couldn’t get a job, recalls Juan Del Castillo, Director of Manufacturing Operations at JARC. “Nobody would give her a chance. Nobody would even talk to her,” he says. “We took her in.” After graduating from JARC, she’s now in charge of a manufacturer’s tooling department. “That was something she never dreamed she would do,” Del Castillo says.

She might not have dreamed it, but now she lives it: Her story speaks to so many individuals’ lives that the Fry Foundation, in partnership with organizations like JARC, aims to enrich.

JARC participants learn skills that match what companies need.

Since 1983, the Fry Foundation, one of the 10 largest foundations in Illinois, has addressed the needs of Chicago’s low-income communities, providing more than $186 million in grants to provide employment, arts learning, education and health services. But in our early years, we found that most job training programs placed people in entry-level positions that offered low wages, high turnover and little opportunity for advancement. As Emily Doherty, JARC’s Director of Training Services, puts it, “If you don’t have a career path, it doesn’t matter how many minimum-wage jobs you work—you’ll never be able to sustain your family.”

After our first decade, organizations such as JARC helped us target another, more effective approach: We began supporting workforce development programs, like JARC, that give people the skills they need to get higher-wage jobs and finally climb out of poverty.

This was—and remains—an unusual funding area for foundations. Such programs require greater expertise on the part of grantees and can be expensive to fund.  The average cost for training is around $5,000 per person. Despite the cost, the return on investment can be profound.

Since 1995, the Fry Foundation has awarded more than $500,000 in grants to JARC, which works with employers to help their graduates develop specialized skills for which there is unmet demand. While the manufacturing sector will create about 3.5 million jobs over the next decade, 2 million of those jobs will go unfilled because of a gap in skills. JARC’s strategy is to help close that gap. In 2006, it started training in CNC (computer numerical control), a machine that cuts metal, and in 2010, JARC began teaching more specialized welding. Last year, JARC again learned from employers of an unmet need, and with the Fry Foundation’s support, it added a course in brake press, which bends metal.

JARC also does more than impart technical know-how; it emphasizes soft skills. Students must consistently show up on time and with a good attitude—or risk expulsion. “I don’t want students to see this as a training facility. I want them to see this as a job,” says Del Castillo. It’s no coincidence that JARC’s facilities resemble a shop floor.

In 2009, JARC ventured into an entirely new area. Until then, it had focused strictly on vocational training. But JARC found that some students didn’t have the basic reading and math skills they needed to enter its technical programs. So the Fry Foundation supported JARC’s creation of a general adult education program that now provides those skills.

JARC’s willingness to test new ideas could give pause to funders that, understandably, want to keep supporting proven successes. But at the Fry Foundation, we see ourselves as a grantee’s partner—“a steadfast and engaged partner that makes a commitment to working together,” as Loudon says.

When organizations like JARC say they want to develop a new training program, we don’t tell them to just stick with what they know. We understand that, whether an initiative does or doesn’t succeed, the grantee will learn from it. And so will its peers—which advances the entire field.

We’ve helped JARC expand not just the types of services it provides but also the populations that receive them. As part of its ongoing evolution, JARC realized it could do a better job of training more women for a male-dominated field. In the past three years, the organization has partnered with Chicago Women in Trades, a nonprofit that helps women earn high-paying construction jobs, to learn ways to better recruit and retain women, such as hosting all-women networking events and advocating for female hires among employers. Before that partnership, only one to three of JARC’s roughly 100 annual trainees in Chicago were women. Now, it trains 15 to 20 women a year.

Within the past year, JARC has also broadened its geographic impact. It’s taken the best practices it’s honed in Chicago and applied them to new facilities in Addison, Illinois, 20 miles west of Chicago, and in the severely challenged neighborhood of Park Heights in Baltimore, Maryland.

The kind of specialized training JARC offers has helped match its graduates with companies like Strum Contracting, a welding and light fabrication construction firm that made the first hires out of JARC’s Baltimore center. Strum recognized that JARC gave its students the right skills and certifications. That’s especially critical for the welding industry, which lacks skilled young workers to replace its aging workforce, according to Teaera Strum, Chief Operating Officer, Strum Contracting. “As a blue-collar employer, we can’t find our workforce. JARC is providing us the workers we need,” Strum says.

With each new graduate and each new job, we’re proud to have helped create new opportunities for workers and their families to get ahead.

Jennifer Miller-Rehfeldt is the Employment Program Officer at the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation.


Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC)


Lloyd A. Fry Foundation