Erica smiles into the camera with her arms crossed. Erica smiles into the camera with her arms crossed.

“Innovation is not just about coming up with a totally new idea, it’s making existing systems function more efficiently. We need more of that.”

Erica Swinney Staley

Erica Swinney Staley knows innovation isn’t just about creating the next big technological wonder. It also requires support for the people and the environment that make such advances possible. That’s why she works to provide opportunities for young people to unlock their potential through the nonprofit Manufacturing Renaissance, and its career pathways program Manufacturing Connect.

“We can’t have a sustainable economy if we don’t have a robust education and training system. Our ability to build and sustain a robust economy is based on talent, it’s based on people,” she said.

Manufacturing Connect began its involvement with students in fall 2007, partnering with Chicago Public Schools. The group’s big idea was that a school -- Austin College and Career Preparatory High School (previously Austin Polytechnical Academy) -- could be the catalyst for community development, connecting students who needed support with companies who needed employees. “Innovation is not just about coming up with a totally new idea, it’s making existing systems function more efficiently,” Erica said. “We need more of that.”

At the beginning, Erica said, that meant taking students on field trips to companies in their own communities, exposing them to jobs and career pathways they had never heard of before. It has since evolved into a much larger program, including relationships with more than 100 companies that provide job shadows or internships.  The school installed a modern machining facility to help students earn credentials and certificates that can lead to high paying jobs after graduation. They created a Young Manufacturing Association for students to keep networking and supporting one another once they join the workforce.

But Erica said that workforce development programs are about more than just education. Manufacturing Connect is an investment in communities on the west side of Chicago where violence and poverty hurt too many families. It is a connection between employers and the workers they need to grow, and it’s a building block for economic prosperity for the whole Chicago region. “Without these kinds of programs we can’t grow,” she said. “We are helping create the conditions for innovation.”

By 2050, Erica hopes to see programs like Manufacturing Connect become common across the region, but it will take investment and intentional planning to make it happen. But, she said, it’s an issue the region can’t afford to ignore.

“We have kids who are literally being shot on the street because they don’t have access to gainful employment. They haven’t had the opportunity to see and feel what’s possible beyond their immediate environment. It’s just a waste of everything that we could be as Chicagoans, everything we could be as a society, to let an entire population of our neighbors not even know what is possible,” she said.