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‘Makers On the Move’ bus tour visits Bloomington to push manufacturing jobs amid worker shortage

news conference
Eric Stock
Illinois Manufacturers Association President Mark Denzler, at podium, spoke at a news conference Tuesday at Beer Nuts in Bloomington.

Business leaders are touring the state to spotlight the manufacturing industry, as many of them struggle to find workers.

Mark Denzler, president of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association (IMA), said the number of open manufacturing jobs has nearly doubled nationally since the start of the pandemic — from 437,000 to 850,000.

charter bus
Eric Stock
The "Makers on the Move" bus stopped at the Beer Nuts headquarters in Bloomington on Tuesday.

He said many of those jobs are higher skill than those of prior generations. “You need an enhanced level (of training),” Denzler said. “Whereas you might have had 10 production workers on the floor before, you may have replaced those with automation, but now you need two folks well versed in mechatronics that can run the machine.”

Denzler, along with the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center and other business leaders, are visiting manufacturing facilities, colleges and high schools across the state as part the "Makers on the Move" bus tour.

The 56-foot, fully-wrapped bus stopped Tuesday at the Beer Nuts plant in Bloomington.

Beer Nuts director of operations Chris Bickett said the Bloomington-based manufacturer has increased hourly wages 90% and boosted benefits in the last 18 months to address the worker shortage.

He said skilled labor has become harder to find and keep since the pandemic began more than two years ago.

“Nationally over the past year, we have experienced movements of talented people as workers have reassessed the impact of work and what is important in their lives,” said Bickett, adding Beer Nuts has 20 open positions.

That's more than unusual, he said.

Bickett said employers have to recognize today's workforce expects career fulfillment and growth, work-life balance and a positive company culture.

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Denzler said manufacturers are trying to overcome the perception that their jobs are dark, dirty and dangerous, but he said the industry is preparing for the possibility some workers who left during the COVID pandemic will never return to the manufacturing workforce.

“Some individuals have chosen, whether they are mothers staying at home with kids or seniors or others who have left the workplace, but I think manufacturing is adapting,” said Denzler, adding that more manufacturers are starting to expand automation to reduce the need for more workers.

Workers' Rights Amendment

The IMA is opposed to Amendment 1, the so-called Workers Rights Amendment that Illinois voters will consider on Nov. 8.

The amendment aims to guarantee an employee's right to unionize and bargain collectively by enshrining it in the Illinois Constitution. It would block the legislature from enacting any right-to-work laws that could restrict collective bargaining.

Denzler said the amendment is a political poly by Democrats to get the unions to vote on election day. “Illinois is not going to pass a right-to-work law. We have a Democrat governor, a Democrat general assembly. This is really about organized labor to come out in the election.”

He also said the measure would likely lead to higher taxes.

“It takes power out of the hands of the General Assembly or mayors or city councils. It puts that in collective bargaining. What we are really going to see is probably increased costs in contracts and therefore individual residents and businesses would probably have to pay higher taxes to support those contracts,” Denzler said.

As for whether expanded bargaining power could ease the worker shortage, Denzler said "certainly manufacturers might have to compete with the public sector if they are union-based and are making a higher wage. There's always that balance between public and private sector."

Denzler noted private sector unions are covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

Amendment supporters say it would enable union workers to bargain for better wages and working conditions. The measure requires a three-fifths majority to pass, or a simple majority of all voters.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.