For decades, the economic challenge on the South and West sides has been too many people and not enough jobs. Freedman Seating faces the opposite problem.
The company, which makes seats for buses, trains and trucks out of a big factory in West Humboldt Park, has shrunk its workforce to about 600 people, down from 850 before the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s hiring again, with nearly 50 job openings. It’s struggling to fill them, says CEO Craig Freedman.
“We’re really constrained by labor,” he says.
Freedman’s situation shows that one of the biggest problems facing businesses today—finding employees—exists even in some Chicago neighborhoods that have been screaming for more jobs for decades. Skilled employees like machinists or welders are in especially short supply, but finding unskilled labor is tough, too, Freedman says.
Hiring has been a challenge for manufacturers for years, partly because the jobs have become more sophisticated. Many lower-skilled jobs have moved overseas. Working on a factory floor doesn’t require a college education, but it does require more training than it used to, leading to a jobs-skills mismatch.
The labor shortage has “become more acute” since the pandemic, Freedman says. “If we could just pluck people off the street, our problem would be solved. It’s not that easy.”
To attract workers, the company has increased wages by 4% to 20%, depending on the job, since 2019 and has added new benefits, like family leave, he says.
It’s going to take a concerted effort, a collaborative effort between business, local organizations and the city to really develop an infrastructure to attract, train and retain a workforce.
Labor has been just one headache for Freedman in the COVID era. Many of its customers—companies that manufacture buses, train cars and other vehicles—have struggled with computer chip shortages and declining orders. Supply-chain problems also have disrupted Freedman’s business and pushed up costs of key raw materials. Hot-rolled steel costs about $1.40 per pound now, up from 25 cents previously, Freedman says.
Freedman Seating has been through many ups and down since the late 19th century, when company founder Hyman Freedman, Craig Freedman’s great-grandfather, began making seat cushions for horse-drawn buggies. The company, which makes seats for CTA buses, moved from Ravenswood to its current factory, a former Motorola plant at 4545 W. Augusta Blvd., about 20 years ago.
The West Side’s manufacturing base has only shrunk since then: Brach’s closed its candy factory in Austin in the early 2000s, putting about 1,100 people out of work. A Helene Curtis factory in Humboldt Park that employed about 600 people closed around the same time.
By last fall, manufacturers in west central Chicago, which includes Humboldt Park, West Humboldt Park, Austin, Garfield Park, employed 5,928 people, down 58% from 2001, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Over the same period, total employment in the area fell 11%, to 61,118.
Still, recruiting factory workers has only gotten more difficult over the past two decades. It’s not for lack of trying. A network of nonprofits, schools and other organizations—including the City Colleges of Chicago, Manufacturing Renaissance, Skills for Chicagoland’s Future and the Jane Addams Resources Corp.—offer job training and other programs to draw people into the industry. But factory work still suffers from an image as a dirty and difficult old-school job.
“Trying to attract the youth isn’t easy,” Freedman says. “With this gig economy, they don’t want to work for anybody. They want to work for themselves.”
Manufacturing advocates say the problem will persist without more money, new ideas and a bigger commitment.
“It’s going to take a concerted effort, a collaborative effort between business, local organizations and the city to really develop an infrastructure to attract, train and retain a workforce,” Freedman says.
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