CHICAGO -- Gerry Cantu is old school when it comes to teaching.
From the first week of class, Cantu makes his students get their hands dirty, disassembling and putting back together greasy, gunky decades-old machines to better understand how they work and how they can be repaired.
As the promise of good-paying jobs has renewed an interest in manufacturing, local colleges and training centers are beefing up their programs; their focus tends to be on mathematics and computer programs because modern plants operate with the latest technology.
And then there's Cantu, who teaches at the Illinois Manufacturing Foundation in Chicago. There is a market for his students because some companies continue to make parts on old, custom-made machines and need people who can operate them and keep them going, knowledge that is disappearing along with older skilled workers like Cantu.
"All the old-timers are retiring," said Cantu, 57, who explained that he is trying to impart skills no one would teach him when he started working as a machinist four decades ago.
"I learned mostly on my own," Cantu said with pride. "That's why I like to teach."
Cantu's classroom is in the second floor of an old industrial building and consists of about a dozen machines in a row near the translucent windows facing railway tracks. Cantu can at times be gruff with his feedback, but the students seem to sense he cares about them and wants them to succeed.
"What I'm trying to do is to help you get in the door of a company," Cantu explained to a group of potential students during an orientation. Learning how to properly set up a machine takes years, he said. "That's what I'm teaching you from the beginning."
Some of the students are a lot like Cantu, a onetime member of the Harrison Gents street gang who credits turning around his life by working with his hands. Others want to turn themselves around the same way.
Student Cordell King sees Cantu's 16-week training program as a possible ticket out of unemployment. Hiring managers, he said, don't care about his years as an emergency medical technician and a paramedic. Cantu's class has given him hope because he was referred to the school by a company that had openings for machinists.
Mary Ann Cervinka, a human resources manager at Arrow Gear, a gear-maker based in Downers Grove, Ill., has hired some of Cantu's students as trainees in the company's in-house program. She said the hands-on training he provides is invaluable.
"When you first start to cook or bake or work in the kitchen, you don't make a 10-course dinner," Cervinka said. "You learn to boil water, to make hot dogs … or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
It's much the same for learning to become a skilled machinist, she said. Step by step, they learn the intricacies of metal, what the machine does and how it works, as well as the skills needed to troubleshoot and solve critical-thinking problems, Cervinka said.
Not all of Cantu's students land machinist jobs, which pay about $11 to more than $28 an hour, depending on their skill level.
Since Cantu began teaching at the foundation in 2009, 13 of his 18 students have found jobs in manufacturing, according to Ric Gudell, the foundation's executive director. The foundation has struggled to attract students because of a perception manufacturing is dead or dying. Cantu said one advantage of having a machinist's skills is that work is almost always available. Sure, there are boom and bust cycles, and he acknowledged being laid off many times. But he said he always found a job within weeks. Just recently, he said, he turned down an offer of $25 per hour to repair machines, about the same amount he makes as a teacher.
As a young machinist, Cantu said, the older workers essentially tried to block him from the trade by refusing to answer any of his questions during his training. They feared he would eventually take away their jobs. So he paid attention to how the men worked their machines, learned some of the black art skills that machinists like to keep to themselves, and soon even the older machinists were asking him for tips.