To listen to Alfredo Gutierrez wax on about the merits of the Midwestern worker is to recall Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago.”
You know the one.
“Hog Butcher for the World,
“Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
“Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
“Stormy, husky, brawling,
“City of the Big Shoulders.”
Only Gutierrez, while eloquent on the subject, doesn’t maintain a conversation in poetry. Though that might be fun too.
“Probably the strongest work ethic of laborers is the folks in the Midwest,” the Houston-based founder of SparrowHawk Real Estate Strategists said, definitely not rhyming. “They’re just, I don’t know what they put in the water there, but they’re hard workers. And so you’ve got a good labor force.”
It turns out it’s not just the Gutierrez saying this. UIC assistant professor of labor and industrial relations Bob Bruno has seen it in his research as well.
“When I saw the (Gutierrez) quote I smiled because my own experiences and my own teaching have revealed to me that work is a really animating, defining life activity for people in the Midwest,” said Bruno, who has been studying this field for a quarter of a century.
So while there are many stories about businesses citing taxes or unions or weather as reasons for going elsewhere, perhaps they’re overlooking at least one very persuasive reason to remain in or relocate to the Chicago area: the labor force.
Regrets over leaving
Illinois Manufacturing Association president and CEO Mark Denzler recalls a businesswoman who recently moved her small manufacturing operations of about 50-70
workers to Mississippi with the goal of saving on costs. She regrets the decision, he said.
“She says, ‘My workforce in Illinois was far better than what I have here,’” Denzler said.
Bruno identifies many reasons business look to locate elsewhere — including cheaper labor, lower taxes, cheaper land, tax credits — but that reasoning is shortsighted, he said.
“They’ve made a mistake. The most important component is going to be the quality of the labor because all of the value is going to be driven in the production process, and I think that gets overlooked,” Bruno said.
Bruno said work is part of the culture of the Chicago area. You see it in literary works like Sandburg’s poem or Studs Terkel’s book “Working.” It comes from Chicago’s long history of a destination for immigrants looking for work, whether from foreign countries or the American South.
It’s become about identity and a sense of self-worth for people here.
“And I do think it’s heightened in the Midwest and Chicago in particularly,” he said.
Bruno said the Chicago work ethic extends to all kinds of workers: blue collar or white collar.
Gutierrez is persuasive on this also.
“And then you’ve got the management, the executives really where you can fill in the whole stack there in Chicago. And it’s a central location that can go warehouse to warehouse or last mile if need be because it’s a big population,” he said.
Like Gutierrez noted, there are many other very good reasons for businesses to locate here in addition to the labor force: the central location in the country: access to transportation via O’Hare Airport, interstate highways or this being the only place in the country with seven major train lines; access to freshwater Lake Michigan water, a key factor in the manufacturing process.
But today we’re focusing on the Chicago-area worker.
A large labor pool
The sheer size of the Chicago area — about 6 million people in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties — makes this a great place to locate a business. Illinois has about 560,000 manufacturing workers now, said Denzler, down about 20,000 from before the pandemic but up about 30,000 from the low point last year.
Nationally, he said, there are 800,000 open manufacturing jobs. That’s up from a previous high of 437,000 open manufacturing jobs, illustrating the national worker shortage.
“There’s other markets that have a good labor force and probably cheaper labor,” Gutierrez said, using Louisville, Kentucky, as an example. “But the problem is when you look at raw numbers there’s not enough labor. And so that is a problem for the warehousemen in some of these secondary markets where Amazon or Home Depot or one of the bigger companies come in and gobble up a lot of employees, there’s just not enough people.”
But Gutierrez insisted this is about more than the number of people here. This is about quality as well as quantity.
“When I’m around the warehouse workers in the Midwest — Chicago and all these other Midwestern cities — they’re different than the folks in the southeast and the folks in the West Coast. They just have a different work ethic,” he said.
He doesn’t have any data to support his thesis, just his own observations.
“You can just look at the speed the people are working at, the pride they’re taking in their jobs,” he added. “It’s just different.”
Not that this is something that can be measured, Bruno said.
“It would be really hard. I’d be suspicious of anybody who said they can do it,” Bruno said. “But there is this strong experience with work in the Midwest that it’s part of your development. It’s connected to your health and well-being.”
Education is important
Why does Gutierrez see a better workforce in the Chicago area? Denzler, the IMA president, points to the educated workforce as a key factor. School systems here are better than in other states, though Denzler cautions that many school districts have phased out industrial arts, a program that gave many students a head start on a career in manufacturing.
“We really have to get those programs back in high schools, and we’re slowly turning that around, but we lost a generation of workers,” Denzler said.
Bruno said unions are one reason workers here are better prepared. Union apprenticeship programs are very valuable, especially in the construction industry.
Community colleges such as Harper College, College of Lake County and Elgin also have worked to pick up the slack, starting new programs to give future manufacturing workers the skills they need for today’s jobs. And make no mistake, manufacturing jobs are a lot different from they were in Sandburg’s day.
That’s a key point to make to convince teenagers and 20-somethings to go into manufacturing. Many of the perceptions about manufacturing are outdated.
“We have to show that manufacturing is not dark, dirty and dangerous like it might have been 30 or 40 years ago,” Denzler said. “Today’s manufacturers are high-tech and diverse and sustainable. So it’s a completely different manufacturing than it was a couple of decades ago. So we have to do a better job of perception.”
The perception of the typical manufacturing worker — think older, white and male — also is outdated. Women compose about a third of manufacturing workers, Denzler said, and he’s working to attract more women to the industrial workforce.
He’s also working to attract people from diverse communities, returning military veterans, ex-offenders and people looking for a change. For instance, some people might be leaving the hospitality industry looking for benefits, he said.
“So we really have to expand our base if we want to keep up,” Denzler said.
It also helps that this area has great universities producing a wealth of engineering graduates. For instance, Illinois, Northwestern and the University of Chicago produce many highly qualified engineers each year.
And for all the criticism that state government gets, some of it warranted, it deserves some credit for preparing workers, Bruno said.
“Illinois actually does a pretty decent job,” he said.