Matt Erbach says teaching students how to fabricate parts precisely down to a thousandth of an inch is the best part of his job.
"I love the precision ... the getting it right aspect of it," said Erbach, one of two precision manufacturing instructors at Elgin Area School District U-46. "Just working with a developing student and honing that ability to get it on target, it's a lot of fun."
Erbach, 39, who has been teaching precision manufacturing at Streamwood High School for 13 years, was recognized Thursday among the best skilled-trades teachers in the nation. He is among 18 teachers singled out for the 2018 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence. Three teachers were first-place winners and 15, including Erbach, got second-place awards. Erbach is the only winner from Illinois.
A representative of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools surprised Erbach with a $50,000 check and a large rolling toolbox during his advanced precision manufacturing class at Streamwood High.
Finalists were selected from among a pool of more than 550 applicants from 49 states pared down after three rounds of judging, Harbor Freight spokeswoman Karen Denne said.
"Winners were chosen based on the teachers' dedication to the trade, their success in connecting their students to career pathways, and their ability to network and connect students with outside opportunities," Denne said. "These teachers are extraordinarily passionate about their skilled trade and instill that passion in their students."
Streamwood and South Elgin high schools applied for the award last year and placed among the top 56 high schools in the country.
"I'm very proud of earning a second-place award," Erbach said. "U-46 has really deep roots with this program -- at Streamwood since it opened in 1978. We have good equipment. We have good facilities. Our curriculum is up-to-date. We are doing well by the students by keeping the program rigorous and engaging."
Of the $50,000 award, $15,000 goes to Erbach to use at his discretion and Streamwood High gets $35,000 to support its skilled trades program.
Erbach plans to use his share to pay off student loans and put the school's money toward supporting students at skilled trades competitions.
Last year, Streamwood High's automated manufacturing technology team placed second in the SkillsUSA state championships and 10th among high school teams in the national contest.
"I'm hoping to pull a first this year," said Erbach of the state contest in April. "It would be nice to focus the students' efforts on practice and training and we don't have to fundraise this year."