Five Questions with Ray Prendergast

I recently swapped emails with Ray Prendergast, head of manufacturing technology at Richard J. Daley College (one of Chicago’s City Colleges); a relatively new department which has at its core a deep and mutually beneficial relationship with a few manufacturers here in town. 

Intrigued when I heard about the program, I asked Mr. Prendergast if he wouldn’t mind serving as a subject of an upcoming “Five Questions” feature. He obliged by offering me the following insights on what is yet one more example of the extent to which higher education and American manufacturing have started to work hand-in-glove in this country in a way that, perhaps, they’ve never done before. 

I loved much of what the man had to say, and as I was reading I began to realize that in time this program at Daley College will most likely no longer represent an outlier or even something out of the ordinary in the worlds of both manufacturing and skill development.  To the contrary; in the not-too-distant future it will probably seem downright commonplace.

I offer my thanks to Ray, and I urge you to take it upon yourself to learn if any schools in your area – be they at the college or high school level – have a similar such program designed to teach high-level and cutting-edge manufacturing skills.  If you do, you might just find yourself pleasantly surprised, not to mention richly rewarded.

1. What kind of student do you find is interested in the manufacturing technology program at Richard J. Daley College?
Our students are, as you might expect, people who enjoy making things and are attracted to technology. Their average age is 28 or 29, so they’re just a few ticks older than your traditional college student. A number of them are already working in the field and are trying to move up by learning cutting-edge manufacturing skills.  Others are working in service-sector jobs and looking to manufacturing for greater opportunities. Many, however, are simply unemployed and looking for a new and/or better career.

2.  What has surprised you, pleasantly or otherwise, about your initiative?
I’d say I’ve been most surprised by the terrific support we’ve seen from so many manufacturing companies. I thought it would take longer to build relationships with employers, but the industry partners we’ve developed have proven to be highly enthusiastic, committed to education, and have been incredibly active partners..

Our expansion of the manufacturing program has been driven by industry needs and our partners have helped us design courses, guest-lectured and regularly offered us factory tours. Several are currently working hard to create paid internships and apprenticeships that will provide them a pool of talent, while offer Daley College valuable connections to local industry. Gaining training experience will be critical to our students’ careers. And, of course, the money will be nice too.

3.  If there were one thing you’d say your school needed to work on with respect to the manufacturing technology program itself, what would it be?
We need more instructors; a lack of them has been limiting our growth somewhat, at least at the moment. We’ve upgraded our curriculum and have great facilities and equipment in place, but we need more industry veterans; men and women who love the kind of “hands-on” teaching that can make a program like this come to life for a student. Theory is important, without a doubt, but with this kind of program, it’s far better to teach through doing than through lecturing.

4.  What interaction do you have with the local or national manufacturing community?
Our employer partners in the manufacturing community have given me the opportunity to meet with them and tour their plants frequently – and have done so enthusiastically I might add. I’ve also met industry representatives and leaders at industry conferences, like the annual International Manufacturing Technology Show, which was just held at McCormick Place last month. Like most schools, we hold industry advisory board meetings, but we try to take them a few steps further than most.

Last spring our second annual “Manufacturing Reinvention” workshop drew over a dozen employers, including representatives from Water Saver Faucet, who served as our keynote speakers. These workshops are helping position us as a budding community of manufacturers and educators in southland Chicago.

5.  As the person who heads up the manufacturing technology program at Richard J. Daley College, what advice might you offer someone, like me, who owns, operates or manages a U.S.-based manufacturing firm?
Build your own talent pipeline. I’m not the first to say it, but many believe we currently have a major skills gap in manufacturing. As the economy improves, especially when construction recovers, this gap is only going to get wider. I would suggest that you reach out to various high schools and community colleges, as many of our current partners have been doing. By doing so you can not only tap into some real talent, you can help shape the very programs that will supply you with the skills and workers you’ll ultimately need.

Also, I’d take the occasion to up-skill your current workforce. Firms that give their employees opportunities to grow develop not only the best workers, but they also attract and retain the best talent.  Opportunity for advancement is definitely something that our students and graduates are telling us they consider when weighing multiple job offers.

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