Inner-City Futurism

Austin Community Academy is the sort of high school where the bathrooms don't have doors -- the better to prevent violence from erupting beyond view. The posters dotting the walls are all for military careers, and despite a beautiful, stately auditorium, the mesh windows and cracked, beige brick give the building a hopeless air. It is arguably the worst school in the Chicago Public School system -- a system that, in 1987, Secretary of Education William Bennett called the worst in the nation, making Austin something akin to the worst school squared. But soon that will all be over: In 2004 the high school was designated as "failing," and this spring it will graduate its final class.

Founded in 1865 by a wealthy real estate speculator, the city of Austin's history reads more like a generic tale of 20th-century urban fortunes than an actual township's trajectory. Annexed by Chicago in 1899, heavy Italian immigration transformed Austin from a 4,000-person suburb into a striving, bustling community of 130,000 white ethnics by 1930. But then came the tumultuous 1960s, the civil rights movement, race riots, white flight, blockbusting, and the decline of decent urban jobs, and soon Austin was a particularly sad example of Chicago's midcentury racial strife and economic decay.

Come fall, though, the doors of what was the Austin Community Academy High School will open as they always do, and the teachers will line the halls as they always have; the building's $31 million renovation will be under way, and a new principal and a new staff will welcome 145 nervous, excited freshmen to a new type of school: Austin Polytechnical Academy.

The new school is an outgrowth of Bennett's harsh comments, which helped kick off a decades-long effort to revive and improve the moribund school district. In June 2004, Mayor Richard Daley unveiled the latest front in this campaign: the Renaissance 2010 program, a powerfully ambitious initiative that seeks to compensate for the city's aggressive shuttering of failing schools by founding 100 innovative, performance-driven alternative schools by 2010.

Austin Polytech is one of the experiments. Backed by a coalition including unions, manufacturers, city bureaucrats, and community-organizing groups centered in the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council, the school is an innovative anachronism: a vocational school at a time when work-based education has gone out of vogue, and an advanced metalworking academy at a moment when the manufacturing industry seems in a state of advanced, ever-accelerating decay. It's an odd choice: Since 2000, the country has lost more than 3 million manufacturing jobs, and employment in the sector is at its lowest point since 1950. As an industry, manufacturing is more often mentioned in eulogies than career pep talks.

And that is a shame: Manufacturing is caught in transition between its past glory as the provider of good, upwardly mobile, blue-collar jobs that formed the backbone of a vibrant middle class, and its future as a smaller, high-skills, high-tech industry. The question is whether it can actually survive this transitional period and attract the talent to save what's worth saving, or whether nostalgia for its past and pessimism about its future will spell the end for American manufacturing, in all its forms.

John Winzeler looks to be in his late 50s, elegantly dressed in a black sportsjacket and lavender crew shirt. His cream-colored English Lab, Brie ("Like the cheese," he says), cleverly plays press secretary, distracting me from taking legible notes by putting her head in my lap and whining for attention. We're sitting in his spacious, sun-lit art gallery, where he happily talks up the local Modernist he's featuring this week. This scene would be utterly ordinary in Carmel or Laguna Beach, but we're in an industrial park in Chicago, Illinois, and the gallery is a wing of Winzeler Gear, a precision gear manufacturer that turns out more than 120 million small, bone-white plastic parts a year.

Winzeler is a third-generation manufacturer. The company was started by his grandfather, continued by his father, and eventually turned over to him. One of the walls is lined with pictures from the factory floor over the years, and they look much like you'd expect: sepia-toned snapshots depicting an incomprehensible tangle of pipes, parts, and machines, each one manned by an employee in a pageboy cap. Turn around, however, and the current factory floor looks like a Star Trek holodeck. You could jog laps around the spacious room, and you'd be well out of breath before you ran into an employee. What you would see, all over, are giant robotic arms, tubes, and presses churning out small, perfect plastic gears, and dropping them lightly onto whisper-quiet conveyor belts. Walk around Winzeler's factory and you can't help but think that while Isaac Asimov's famous "Three Laws of Robotics" forbade robots from harming humans, they never forbade them from taking human jobs.

"This is a highly automated plant," Winzeler says. "It's the only way to compete in this part of the world. And if you're going to move a lot of product in the same way, you're going to want very, very little human involvement." That's a surprising admission: It's not just competition that has led Winzeler to turn to robotics but quality. Humans make errors that machines don't. They tire in ways machines can't. They slow down or max out in ways machines won't. "Ten years ago," says Winzeler, "I made 2 million gears per month, employing 60 people. Now I make 12 million gears a month, and employ 45 people."

This is the story of modern manufacturing. What's new is not just China, it is robotics, technology, productivity. In its report asking "What accounts for the decline in manufacturing employment?" the Congressional Budget Office found that, "since 1979, the productivity of manufacturing workers has grown at an average annual rate of 3.3 percent, significantly faster than the 2.0 percent growth of labor productivity in the nonfarm business sector overall." A 3.3 increase per year may not seem like much, but compounded over 28 years it means a manufacturing worker in 2007 is 140 percent more productive than his 1979-era self. That means a given manufacturer needs fewer workers.

This could be corrected for if the market for manufactured projects was growing as quickly as productivity was increasing. Indeed, such growth would be natural: Theoretically, advances in productivity should also lower prices and boost demand, bringing the industry back into equilibrium. Theory has not borne out in practice, though. "[W]hile the prices of manufactured goods have indeed fallen consistently relative to other prices," continues the CBO paper, "those lower prices have not led to increased sales: the share of gross domestic product accounted for by manufacturing output has been roughly constant over the past half-century." Add in competition from China for low-skills manufacturing jobs, along with the increased ease and lowered cost of intercontinental communication and transport, and you have an industry in acute distress.

That's a problem, as manufacturing happens to be a particularly good sector on which to base a country's economy. Various industries have what's called a "multiplier effect," which refers to how much secondary economic growth their spending sparks. A dollar spent in manufacturing has a particularly high multiplier, creating an additional $1.43 of activity in other sectors, be they sales or raw materials, mining or transportation. A dollar spent in the services industry, by contrast, has a multiplier of only 71 cents.

There's only so much that can be done about this, of course. America has lost much of its manufacturing base, and will continue to lose more. But it's important to think about which jobs are being sacrificed. Manufacturing will never again serve as a broad industry providing huge numbers of entry-level jobs and an easy path upward. Rather, it will morph into a high-skills industry more akin to architecture or engineering, where there are fewer jobs but ones that are better paying, more demanding, and offering more mobility. "There are fewer entry-level positions that require little or no skills," says Winzeler. "[But] the jobs that are left are much higher paying."

Indeed, they hardly look like traditional manufacturing jobs at all. Sitting in Winzeler's plant, you could easily believe yourself in any of a number of quirky Silicon Valley companies -- it is not only the ethos of the place but also the machinery, the aesthetics, and the obvious complexity of it all. The walls are decorated with advanced degrees obtained by employees, and most employees are hunched over handheld computers and intricate control panels.

And this is the dilemma of modern manufacturing: Its dual reputations as a grimy, blue-collar, low-skill industry and as a dying sector don't exactly convince students seeking a professional career to think manufacturing. In Illinois alone, 40 percent of the manufacturing workforce is expected to retire during the next decade. Replacing those workers is an urgent concern for both the state and the industry.

Yes, the old-style manufacturing is dying, and with it many jobs. But if the talent pool for the new manufacturing doesn't freshen, we will lose all the manufacturing jobs; the high-skill positions and the low-skill positions, the robotics operators and the factory machinists. I have heard manufacturers complain to each other that their industry needs "a new face," that what they suffer from is "a huge PR problem," and that their task is largely one of "marketing." That's where Austin Polytechnical Academy comes in.

Today, Austin is 90 percent African-American, with a median household income of a bit more than $33,000. Those parents who can send their children to private school do so. Those who can send them to another district take that route. And those who are left lack options -- and futures. Austin Polytech hopes to give them both. It also hopes to convince a populace softened by desperation to throw in its lot with an industry that more socio-economically privileged groups would instantly dismiss.

The traditional attack on vocational schools was that they tracked unlucky kids into a narrow occupational path; if graduates decided they didn't want to continue on that path, well, tough. Austin has been conceived as a new sort of vocational school: one that increases, rather than constrains, options. It will not only prepare students for college, but do so more intensely than surrounding schools. There will be a pre-engineering curriculum, double periods of math and English, and an 8-to-5 school day. "We're selling an education that will prepare these kids for high-tech, high-skills, high-paying jobs," promises Bill Gerstein, the principal of Austin Polytechnical Academy.

But the key is not necessarily in the curriculum, it's in the coalition. Austin Polytech is a project of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council (CMRC), a group comprising businesses, unions, activists, government agencies, educators, and anyone else invested in the city's manufacturing sector who is willing to sit in on the occasional meeting. It is a cooperative enterprise, with all sorts of unexpected alliances emerging as manufacturing feels ever more besieged.

Austin Polytech, for instance, is a performance, rather than a charter, school. The primary difference is that charter schools operate outside of the union contract, while performance schools include the teachers' union. Dan Swinney, the wiry, kinetic organizer behind the school and the executive director of the CMRC, recalls: "We were under a lot of pressure to convert to a charter school, but the Illinois Manufacturers' Association actually helped us resist it. They understood the vision, which is that we need this social coalition including all the stakeholders to be competitive." The Illinois Manufacturers' Association pushing to preserve unions: Who'd have thunk it?

But it makes sense: If the manufacturers disappear, so do the manufacturing unions. In Swinney's telling, Austin Polytech isn't merely a school, it's a vision of development for the kids, the community, and the industry -- a veritable ecosystem of economic development. By loading the students with marketable skills, the school will help attract business to the community. If the residents of Austin have good, local jobs, they'll be able to spend more, developing the community. If there's an example of a community revitalized by high-skill manufacturing jobs, manufacturing itself will benefit, and other communities will begin developing the human capital necessary to sustain the industry. And the more manufacturing there is, the more good, union jobs there will be.

So Swinney, a former union man but now the director of the Center for Labor & Community Research, has assiduously rebuilt long-burnt bridges to assure participation by the community organizations that know the area best, by employers who will need to hire the graduates, by the unions who will need to represent them. Rather than creating these relationships at the point of employment as is traditionally the case, he seeks, through Austin Polytech, to start them earlier, at the point of education.

Swinney speaks of manufacturing with a near-reverence; to hear him tell it, the industry is the solution to almost all of the country's problems. "If we want to have an economy that is environmentally, ethically, and economically sustainable," he asks, "what would you have? High value-added, advanced manufacturing. The environmental crisis, for instance, will have to be solved at the point of production. The next generation of environmentalists need to be industrial engineers. We need to be attracting the Harvard kids into manufacturing, where they can actually solve these problems, not into law, where they simply litigate against the companies causing them."

The key to all of this progress is the involvement of the manufacturers themselves. Starting in their junior year, students at Austin will be encouraged to do internships, job shadowing, workplace development. And at least in these heady early days, employers seem enthusiastic to help. "My problem with Austin Polytechnical," says Joan Wrenn, President of Hudson Precision Products, "is that it won't give me any graduates till 2011. We need the talent. What's happened in manufacturing is that we used to have 40 entry-level positions we could recruit from. But the advances in technology took away those basic jobs." Austin Polytech, she hopes, will be the first of many schools that restore a pipeline for recruitment.

These connections with employers are more important than they may seem at first glance. Their benefits go far beyond internships, experience, and even, in a direct sense, jobs. Rather, they provide social and occupational capital of a sort rarely accessible in poor, decaying communities. Wrenn tells of a recent lunch at which she sat next to the dean of engineering at a major university and talked up Austin Polytech. She was bombarded with interest. She exchanged cards with the enthusiastic educator and promised to inform her of particularly hot prospects graduating from the school.

Those sorts of connections are common, and often more formalized, in affluent areas, where the schools have natural and well-worn inroads to elite universities, and the students have, through families and friends, a vast network of occupationally helpful connections and relationships. The absence of these inroads among those born in less advantageous circumstances is a critical hindrance to professional and financial advancement.

Research has long borne this out. In the 1974 sociology classic Getting a Job, Mark Granovetter interviewed hundreds of professional and technical workers from Newton, Massachusetts, to understand their employment background. Only a fifth used traditional classified ads. More than half, it turned out, had found their jobs through a personal connection. And of those who landed their job through personal connections, the link was, more often than not, an acquaintance or contact rather than a close, personal friend.

It is this network of well-placed contacts that Austin Polytech hopes, through its wide coalition and involved partners, to create. If it succeeds initially, it will begin to succeed automatically: As graduates move into decent jobs and good colleges, they will be in better positions to help their younger friends and acquaintances in the community. The benefits of this process are tough to quantify, but potentially very significant.

But it will be hard. A lot of minds will have to be changed first. "As I've gotten into the school reform movement," sighs Swinney, "I've been really unimpressed with [school reformers'] attitude towards education linked to employment opportunities: They seem to still think that linking school to work is part of a process that tracks kids into bad jobs, that it suggests they're dumb."

College is certainly the most respected path to affluence, and vocational education still has a rough reputation. But for some born into less advantaged circumstances, college can prove such a cultural leap, and often such a financial hardship, that the active pursuit of good, post–high school employment may prove a more effective approach to cutting the achievement gap. "For the population that we're educating," says Gerstein, the school's principal, "traditional college may not be relevant to them, but they still want careers where they can make a lot of money." Manufacturing, increasingly, is such a career. And with an aging, retiring workforce, there will be plenty of positions coming open.

To be sure, Austin will start small, with an inaugural freshman class of only 145, and its primary impact may be as a model that can be brought to scale, rather than as a freestanding institution. "What I personally want to see happen," Gerstein continues, "is that by demonstrating how you can do it with our population, with working class African-American kids, school districts around the country which have large African-American populations will change their policies and procedures and create more schools that work." And if he manages to save American manufacturing along the way, well, so much the better.

This article, part of our series on "The Road to Good Jobs," was made possible through the generosity of the Ford Foundation.

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