Executive profile: Ray Prendergast [Chicago Tribune]
(Chicago Tribune (IL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sept. 23--After 20 years in manufacturing, Ray Prendergast learned not to fear change.
Although he was laid off a half-dozen times, he always found other opportunities. And besides, he said, his first factory jobs paid significantly more than what he made as a lab assistant after graduating from Yale University with a bachelor's degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.
Now 61, Prendergast is training the next generation of factory workers as director of manufacturing technology programs at Richard J. Daley College, one of the seven schools in the City Colleges of Chicago. Daley College is tasked with closing the skills gap that manufacturers say prevents them from filling thousands of jobs.
"We want to produce the shop floor leaders," Prendergast said. "We want to produce not just technicians who are good at machining and mechanical repair and electrical repair and assembling new production systems. We want to produce people who can lead."
To meet that goal, Prendergast revamped the curriculum for students in the school's associate degree program, increasing the emphasis on liberal arts classes, such as English composition. He says such courses are key to developing critical thinking skills.
He's also added classes on skills that are in high demand, such as welding. This semester, he has the welding students collaborating with art students, so they learn about everything from design (the project involves making a small bridge) to teamwork, essential in today's factories, as workers increasingly are expected to be self-directed and able to solve problems.
Employers say Prendergast's passion has fired up the program and its students.
"He is different because he's been in manufacturing and he understands it." said Stacy Hayes, head of human resources at Fusion OEM, a contract manufacturer in Burr Ridge.
Third-semester student Gabriel Barrington, 26, said he recently walked into Prendergast's office to vent his frustrations with a machine he was using to cut plastic. He said he didn't expect Prendergast to know how to help, but he was surprised when Prendergast offered feedback "and it really helped." Barrington described Prendergast as someone who could recite five facts about an obscure material on the spot.
Started as machinist
Prendergast got his start as a machinist in Boston. The $8-per-hour pay was about four times what he earned as a lab assistant. Less than two years later, he moved to a Detroit for a job that paid $12 per hour.
To get an application for that job, Prendergast said he told the local employment office he had been laid off from Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co., which had just closed. It wasn't the truth.
Prendergast said he doesn't condone lying and stresses that he didn't lie to the company -- only to the local unemployment office. Competition for jobs was fierce at the time; 10 other people hired along with him made up the same story, he said.
To get hired, Prendergast said he passed a battery of tests, including math and blueprint reading, climbed a 50-foot tower and demonstrated he could cut sheet steel with a torch. His work involved repairing buildings, rebuilding train cars, and moving and installing giant, overhead cranes that could lift up to 200 tons.
Prendergast said the plant employed more than 10,000 people and had 300 miles of railroad track that carried giant, ingots and coils of steel. "That probably might have been my favorite job. I was in my 20s. It was exciting," he said.
He was laid off in 1979 and moved to Buffalo, where he worked for three months at a brass company before he was laid off again.
It was a scary time, he said. The country was in a recession; Chrysler was forced to seek a government bailout. Prendergast had no savings, and his girlfriend (who is now his wife), Tamzen Chapman, was still in Detroit.
For six months he worked as a day laborer, filling in at odd jobs. One of the most punishing was loading and unloading 100-pound bags of dry beet pulp. "I realized if I can get through this I can get through anything," Prendergast said.
In 1984, Prendergast and Chapman moved to Chicago, where she had a job lined up and Prendergast went to work at a sheet metal fabricator. He later got a job sharpening tools that machines use to cut parts.
Another layoff in 1992 led to his career in teaching.
While taking a software design class at Jane Addams Resource Corp., a nonprofit that focuses on job training and workforce development, he learned that the metalworking skills instructor was leaving and asked to be considered. All he needed was a bachelor's degree, which he had. His teaching career was launched.
In retrospect, Prendergast said he didn't put much thought into asking to teach other than he knew the subject well. He saw an opening and went for it, Prendergast said.
He shadowed the departing instructor for a day and found himself perplexed by how the instructor taught the importance of small tolerances. The instructor would remove a penny from a large jar of coins to illustrate his point. Some students grasped what he was explaining, but others were lost, Prendergast said.
When he took over, he used tools -- a micrometer and caliper -- to show how small tolerances are measured, just as they would be in a factory. Students enjoyed his practical approach.
"It was a little bit scary for me," Prendergast. "That was the last time I think I had any fear about doing this as a career."
Prendergast taught for about four years, leaving to become a quality assurance engineer for a company in Wheeling. Later, he was self-employed but taught classes part time at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines.
In 2003, Chicago Public Schools hired him to manage manufacturing and transportation programs in 23 high schools, including some that had been teaching outmoded technology and others that had struggled to stay open because of the perception manufacturing was dead or dying. He helped design Austin Polytechnical Academy, a West Side high school specializing in advanced manufacturing.
In 2005, he became executive director of Jane Addams Resource Corp. He left in 2009 over disagreements with the board.
Later that year, Daley College's President Jose Aybar was looking for a director for the manufacturing technology department. "Our manufacturing program was literally at a standstill," Aybar said.
Aybar wanted someone who could "take the program and put it in the limelight and make it happen." He had his reservations about Prendergast's lack of background in higher education and the fact he didn't have a master's degree.
Aybar said he offered Prendergast the job in 2010 knowing he had a long road ahead of him. He said he was attracted to Prendergast's willingness to learn and his honesty about what he did and didn't know. Aybar asked Prendergast to get a master's degree, which he completed this year.
"To me that's the type of get up and go that's needed in a position such as that because it showed me that he had the oomph to really get things going," Aybar said.
At the same time, Prendergast said, he realized he also needed to involve Aybar in the manufacturing program if he were to improve it. Initially Aybar had no interest in meeting with manufacturers, but Prendergast coaxed him into attending a manufacturing expo. Aybar expected to see burly men with wrenches running machines.
The stereotype was broken when he spoke with a petite woman with a bachelor's degree. "I had realized before that the times had changed and we needed a different type of curriculum in manufacturing, but I really had not grasped the full impact of it," Aybar said.
Aybar said Prendergast's passion allows him to stay current on what manufacturers need in a workforce. Moreover, Daley's program now offers stackable credentials that lead to an associate degree accepted by four-year schools. That allows students to continue to work toward a bachelor's degree if they want.
Prendergast said the associate degree program requires far more discipline and organization from students than what has been expected in the school's 16-week programs, which are focused on setting up and operating computer-run machines, quality assurance, factory automation and welding.
The associate degree program also means the school has to keep students engaged over a much longer stretch and help them through a lot more decisions, from what classes to pick to how to set up a LinkedIn profile. Companies want people with a technical background, but also with a good sense of business and organizational skills, Prendergast said.
Prendergast plans to hire two full-time instructors by the end of the school year and increase the number of adjunct instructors from eight to 12. That, in turn, will allow him to market the school. Enrollment is at 100 students, up from 78 in the spring semester. His goal is to double enrollment to 200 by fall 2015.
Prendergast's ambition is to operate his own manufacturing plant. "I don't know if I ever will. My wife is dead set against it. She doesn't want to take that kind of risk."
Prendergast said he is not dissatisfied with his current job. "There is no greater satisfaction than helping somebody get a job in their career."
Early Childhood: Prendergast was born in Atlantic City, N.J. His father, Ray, was a civil engineer, and his mother, Patricia, was a homemaker. When he was a teenager, his father helped him find jobs as a construction laborer.
Family: Married to Tamzen Chapman. They have two children, Kyle, 24, and Colleen, 21.
Education: Bachelor's in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, Yale University; MBA, North Park University in Chicago.
Policy: Prendergast is part of Gov. Pat Quinn's Illinois 21st Century Workforce Development Fund Advisory Committee.
Quote: "If (manufacturing) wages were higher, the skills gap would be lower."
(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
[ Back To Technology News's Homepage ]