FORREST — As part of his district events agenda for Aug. 9, U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger met with Mark and Don Slagel, co-owners of Slagel Manufacturing in Forrest, for a tour of the facility and to discuss the state of the industry.
Company President Mark Slagel gave Kinzinger a little background on the business, pointing out that Slagel Manufacturing was founded in 1993 to provide metal fabrication services for farmers and small businesses in Central Illinois, and to provide for Slagel’s growing family.
“We started making mostly hog equipment,” Slagel said. “At the time there were a few businesses that put up a lot of hog buildings, but we also worked for a few local farmers, too.”
As the business continued to grow, Slagel’s brother, Don, joined the company as a coowner in 1996 and they soon expanded from a home shop to the current facility in 2000. Since moving to the current location, the
building has undergone six additions and currently employs about 40 workers.
After hearing the history of the company, Kinzinger’s first question for Slagel was, “What is the biggest skill set you need and are you having a hard time finding that?”
Slagel said the industry, as a whole, needs more welders, but as a company, Slagel Manufacturing has been able to find local help.
“Maybe they aren’t completely trained at the time they are hired, but we can get them trained through our program,” Slagel said. “We haven’t really struggled in the last five years or so with finding help.”
To find workers, Don Slagel said they often use temp services. The temp workers typically get hired on after their contract, if they have been working hard and proving themselves.
Kinzinger commended the business, guessing that part of their success may have to do with the fact that so many people locally are pre-exposed to welding and skilled labor. He also said Slagel’s type of success isn’t as common in Northern Illinois.
“In the northern part of the district, up in Rockford, there are a bunch of welding jobs coming in, but they are having a hard time getting welders,” Kinzinger said. “They’ve basically tapped all the resources up there and it’s hard to get somebody to move to Rockford. So, they are having real trouble.
“The big key that I’m seeing is that kids in junior high and high school need to be exposed to some of the trades. We’ve taken away shop class, wood working and such. We’ve told these students that they either have to go to a four-year university or you’re going to fail. That’s the wrong message to be sending.”
Mark Slagel also serves as the president of Prairie Central School Board. He said the high school has worked with the Livingston County Special Services Unit in Pontiac to get some welding programs in place. He recognized there are some students who aren’t interested in attending a fouryear college. For these students, Slagel suggested that a trades program might help keep them employed locally.
Kinzinger concurred with Slagel’s comment.
“That’s the advantage of instilling an interest in the trades in high schoolers,” he said. “You can take someone who doesn’t know anything about manufacturing or welding and they may find that it’s exactly what they want to do. They just had never seen it before.
“We just visited a business this morning and I was talking to one of the welders. He told me he had a master’s degree. He said, ‘the economy got rough in 2007, so I started welding and I just love it. I never want to go back to anything else.’” Slagel said their business has also worked with the Prairie Central FFA to bring students out for tours of the facility.
“There’s a lot more to it than holding an electrode and striking an arc,” Slagel said. “And there are a lot of other opportunities out there for kids to get involved in if they don’t want to weld. We just have to keep working at that.”
Lincoln Slagel, finance manager for Slagel Manufacturing, said when he was in high school, students who didn’t want to go to college almost felt a sense of shame from their parents and teachers in some cases.
“You’d hear them all the way up until the end of senior year thinking about going to college. They know full well they’re probably not going, but that’s how they can stay off people’s bad lists,” he said.
“Some people I knew in college weren’t college material and shouldn’t have been there, but their parents were paying full tuition for them to be in college. Those were the same kids that didn’t get any sort of scholarships or things like that. Maybe they could have used that time to learn something that they would have been better at.”
Kinzinger attributed the shift in public consciousness to a point in the late 1990s when everyone was encouraged to attain a college degree.
“It’s great, people that want to go to college should be able to,” Kinzinger said. “However, it’s basically moving the goal post and telling teens if they fall short of that they aren’t going to be successful.”
“It’s something we’ve got to get a grip on. If you have a lot of people who are skilled in various trades, then you’ll see businesses that want to build there. You know, people ask me all the time, ‘what do we do? Our town is dying.’ The answer is, you have to have the people trained and then the industries will come.”
As a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Kinzinger said one of the committee’s jobs is to try and anticipate upcoming trends in the economy. One of the long-term trends he is looking into is the impact of autonomous vehicles — driverless vehicles.
“We’re way closer to this than people realize, so we’ve got to figure out how to lead this issue,” Kinzinger said. “The problem is, in 10 or 20 years, drivers are going to be out of a job. So, how do we get them into other jobs? Because it’s us against Europe and China to be the Silicon Valley of this new industry.”
At the conclusion of the discussion, Kinzinger said although the country is losing its industrial base, he anticipates it will start to change with the implementation of skilled-work education.
“It’s coming back strong and the good thing is, we’ve got cheap energy. Chemical manufacturing is coming back big, too. But we’ve got to make the education happen.
“I think it’s coming back for a couple reasons. First, I think nobody does it better than we do. When it comes to steel, our steel industry is starting to come back a little bit. We’re also seeing a little reduction in transportation costs and energy prices.
“I’d give a lot of credit to this administration and frankly, Congress, because we reversed a lot of regulations that were jobkilling. From what I hear, there is going to be more to come. But, there is still nothing like being made in America. We’ve always been a world leader in manufacturing, we’re going to hopefully make it even stronger when we do tax reform, which I think is coming.”