|All three women worked in retail or food service. All three women felt stuck. But all three women found a way out.
Through a manufacturing training program at Bethel New Life, a Chicago social service provider, Agnew, Griffin and Johnson each secured a job placement at Atlas. Johnson works as a CNC machinist, Griffin works in assembly, and Agnew is a quality control clerk.
“This job has given me a lot more independence,” Griffin said. “And a lot more opportunity. There’s room for growth. There’s room for advancement. Retail doesn’t have that.”
Johnson agrees. With the money she’s making at Atlas, she’s planning to move out of the West Side to Oak Park, where she’s always dreamed of living.
“I definitely would not be able to do that when I was working in fast food,” Johnson said.
“These opportunities [in manufacturing] give hope to people who don’t feel as if they meet the requirements of certain jobs. It gives someone such as myself an opportunity to make a living, to make a name for themselves.”
Given the power of manufacturing work, Illinois policymakers should be concerned that the state’s recession recovery has been seen in corner stores, restaurants and hotels, but not in steady middle-class occupations where workers bend, forge and assemble. Since Illinois’ recession bottom in January 2010, retail jobs are up 7 percent, and leisure and hospitality jobs are up 16 percent. Manufacturing jobs have increased by just 4 percent – the worst rate of recovery among all neighboring states.
Zach Mottl, fourth-generation owner of Atlas, thinks he knows why.
“The more we grow, the more we’re being punished,” Mottl said. “So it’s not surprising to me that Illinois is struggling to create these jobs.”
“We’re paying $200,000 in property taxes every year. And our workers’ compensation costs are even worse.”
The Land of Lincoln is home to the highest workers’ compensation costs in the Midwest, according to a 2014 study by the state of Oregon. Residents also shoulder some of the nation’s highest property-tax bills. These factors make Illinois an unfriendly state for manufacturers, which need lots of manual labor and a substantial amount of space to succeed.
Mottl added 15 employees last year, each job paying more than $13 an hour. But there was a catch. His workers’ compensation costs went up substantially. If costs keep going up, Mottl fears having to move the family business out of Illinois.
He wouldn’t be the first.
The dreams of Agnew, Griffin and Johnson are alive and well. But unless state lawmakers make an effort to reform what’s ailing manufacturing, stories of overcoming hardship through honest work will be the exception in Illinois, not the rule.