Manufacturing: Searching for a skilled set

Minnesota manufacturers are not just desperate for workers with the right training -- they're doing something about it

By Maura Keller

Like a lot of employers, MRG Tool and Die in Faribault receives applications from job-seekers every week. The manufacturer needs workers, so this should be a good thing - yet usually it isn't. Most of the applicants lack even the basic entry-level technical skills the company expects. "We are not getting applicants that have the skills and knowledge we would like," says director of operations Rod Gramse.

Neither are his competitors. While Minnesota still excels at producing high-quality parts and products, it flounders at producing workers with up-to-date technical skills. Increasingly manufacturers in the state struggle to find applicants qualified to work in their rapidly changing industry. To fight back, they're partnering with educators to boost training opportunities and change perceptions of manufacturing work. Key allies have been found in schools like Alexandria Technical & Community College: "The opportunity for ‘new designs' in how we partner and invest in employees is right in front of us," says its president, Dr. Kevin Kopischke.

Skill shortage
In Minnesota today, manufacturing jobs offer promising futures and generally take place in clean, high-tech environments - but try telling that to parents researching undergraduate or graduate programs for their offspring. Or to high school teachers. Over the years, "blue-collar jobs developed a very negative perception, and as a result students, parents, and school counselors alike began turning people away from pursuing a path that would lead to manufacturing," says Jaime Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association (MPMA).

High school technical courses fell into decline, and many didn't survive. "Thirty years ago, shop classes were mandatory," says Nolan. "Now they aren't even available."

What happened?

"No one wanted to go into manufacturing because they thought everything was being made in China," says Paul Huot, CEO of Huot Manufacturing Company in St. Paul. "With each recession, there were more people to hire, but we had to do the training because a number of the programs in the schools were being closed."

Not helping matters today, Nolan believes, are the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which reduces the ability of students to take electives. If a student wants to study music or art, she says, then an elective option is used up and they might be unable take industrial arts classes - even if they want to.

Students who miss technical training early on are less likely to pursue it further in post-secondary education, which helps explain why some technical colleges have suffered enrollment declines. "With fewer high school students aware of the possibilities in manufacturing, fewer are signing up for classes at two-year programs," notes Gramse.

Meanwhile, as fewer students learned technical skills, the pace of change in manufacturing technology accelerated. Today, even workers already established in manufacturing "are finding that they need to up-skill to keep up with the ever-changing technology demands," says Jeremy Leffelman, assistant director of the 360° program (360mn.org) at Bemidji State University, a collaboration between industry and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities to train workers for manufacturing careers. "The rapid advance in technology in all industries is causing a skilled-employee shortage," he notes. "This does not mean that the employees do not exist, or are not capable. Rather, they have not gained the required educational and training component that manufacturers need."

As Leffelman explains, this results in positions either remaining unfilled or being filled with unqualified workers who are then sent out for training after the fact.

Today's manufacturers in Minnesota need a workforce that has a different skill set than what was necessary even five years ago, says Kopischke. The skills required now include not only the latest technologies, but also problem solving, project management, and a solid understanding of complex projects - and how they all work together in next-generation system design manufacturing.

Good jobs available

For many people, the word "manufacturing" (or, much worse, "factory") brings to mind noisy facilities with polluted air, dim lighting, and dangerous machinery. In truth, manufacturing in Minnesota today is clean, high-tech, and often quiet. Workstations are safe, and plants operate more efficiently than in the past thanks to modern technology and continuous-improvement programs.

"Manufacturers have recognized that employees are more productive in a clean, organized, and well-laid-out work environment," says Leffelman. "And the products being produced today and technology, to some extent, require clean and in some cases climate-controlled work environments."

Continuous-improvement programs play a big role in organizations throughout Minnesota, promoting a clean, efficient, and cost-effective work environment, resulting in reduced injuries, product lead times, and inventories. "Business leaders in many cases are driving this change, but in some cases, this has been embraced and promoted by shop floor personnel," Leffelman notes.

Gramse adds that in today's manufacturing world, employees can choose from many kinds of work environments and technologies. A job might involve creating programs or running CNC machines. Some companies have robotic arms and vision systems, others have people moving parts around. Some companies use tablets, others paper printouts.

Minnesota manufacturers today offer job security, full benefits, and a safe, clean environment. (There's also the pride that comes from making tangible products. Try getting that from sitting in front of a computer screen all day.)

"We have low turnover because we treat people with respect, we pay well, and we have good benefits," says Huot. "We have also done a lot with technology and automating our processes, then train the people how to use it. The people we have now expect change and look forward to it."

Hourly wages are competitive in today's high-tech manufacturing environment, says E.J. Daigle, dean of robotics and manufacturing at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis.

"CNC programmers and operators definitely work in factory environments, but these environments include clean rooms for medical devices to gear hobbers for John Deere and everything in between," he says. "These are excellent jobs making $13 to $17 as a machine operator and $17 to $25 as a CAD/CAM/CNC programmer."

Machinists averaged $20.82 per hour in the second quarter of 2012, according to Leffelman, who cites statewide Labor Market Information data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Nolan of the MPMA notes "employees that prove to their employers that they are able to learn and are motivated can have an expectation to earn upwards of $25 to $30 per hour."

And the idea of manufacturing jobs as a dead-end would appear to be another relic of the past. "In this industry, there are many people that started out at an entry position, to later develop into a key leadership position within the company," notes Gramse.

Approaches to training

Attractive jobs are one thing. Training is another. It's essential that manufacturers have an effective way to train existing or potential employees as technologies change. Some manufacturers in the state use their own internal training programs; these might include registered apprenticeship programs or job shadowing during a probationary period. Some send employees to external training sessions for specified skills. "We offer in-house training on our equipment," notes Huot. "We also offer to pay for training at secondary schools, up to $4,000 per year, and pay for seminar training with associations like Trusight. In return, we hope they stay with us."

Other manufacturers take advantage of college centers that work with them to develop customized training programs. For instance the Customized Training Center at Alexandria Technical & Community College served more than 6,500 incumbent workers and 85 contract training businesses in 2012.

Another common option is having the employee take credit-based education through a local community college or university and then reimbursing tuition, books, and fees if the student does well in the course. Says Daigle of Dunwoody College of Technology: "I have two companies that hire two students each year over the summer, then pay for the second year of schooling at Dunwoody  no commitment. The companies know if they treat them right, they'll stay. The idea is, ‘I give you a job and pay for you to educate yourself into a promotion at my company.'"

Sparking interest

Meanwhile the industry and its various partners are working to drum up interest in manufacturing careers among youngsters (and their families). Many manufacturers partner with trade, government, and educational organizations to help shine a light on the promise of manufacturing. For instance, MRG Tool & Die is a member of the MPMA, the Faribault Chamber of Commerce, and the South Central College Advisory Board, and it's an active participant in career education events and state-wide campaigns.

To connect with high school students, Dunwoody runs free robotics-competition training on weekends. "We visit high schools that don't teach manufacturing, and we educate students," Daigle says. "This year we have over 300 manufacturing students. That's the largest group in over 10 years."

For its part, 360° is involved in a statewide marketing and educational campaign called "Dream !t Do !t" that helps industry promote manufacturing careers to young people. (Its tagline: "Your future is made in manufacturing.") During information sessions, manufacturers throughout Minnesota explain why they love the industry  and why future workers will, too.

Another way to spark interest is to let potential employees  and their parents  see for themselves what manufacturing facilities really look like on the inside. In October 2012 the "Dream !t Do !t Statewide Tour of Manufacturing" had more than 50 businesses opening their doors to the public for a week and conducting tours of their facilities. The purpose was to show visitors what products are being made in their communities, see the career paths that workers can follow in manufacturing, and  key point change outdated images of manufacturing. The tour started in 2011 and will happen again later this year.

Familiarization tours like this could also play a key role in getting community members to evangelize about manufacturing careers. "People promote what they know and understand," Gramse says. "Ask somebody in the industry how they learned about it and chances are they were exposed to it by a family member, relative, or friend."

Meanwhile, the MPMA partnered with the Minnesota Children's Museum last year to bring a "How People Make Things" exhibit to the museum. The exhibit focused on four areas of manufacturing: mold, cut, deform, and assembly. It drew more than 100,000 attendees, says Nolan, and "went a long way to change perceptions."

How effective Minnesota's manufacturers will ultimately be in changing perceptions and boosting the number of qualified applicants remains to be seen. But there's no doubt they are a resilient, patient, and innovative bunch. Improving the pool of properly trained workers is a task that falls well within their skill set.

Spreading the word
How one college is changing perceptions among high school students  and teachers  about manufacturing careers

Alexandria Technical & Community College has designed and implemented some successful initiatives to improve manufacturing career awareness within regional high schools. These include the following:

** Summer internships for high school teachers and counselors at area manufacturing companies, paid for by the latter. The goal is to introduce them to modern manufacturing so they'll be more likely to advise high school students to enter the field when there's a good fit.

** Summer camp programs targeted at high school students, acquainting them with the career opportunities available in manufacturing.

** Integration of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning initiatives, such as First Robotics and Project Lead the Way, into the high school curriculum. These have been developed in collaboration with area colleges and universities. They teach both the technical and "essential" skills (communication, project management, team building, and so on).

** Alliances such as the Packaging Machine Manufacturing Consortium, a regional alliance of manufacturers and economic development agencies that provide annual funding to support equipment, technology, and linking initiatives between industry, college, and students.

** Meetings with educators about plans for new schools. The Alexandria School District passed a referendum last year for a new $70 million high school. As it was being planned, a meeting was held between manufacturers, college and high school faculty, and high school and college administrators to determine how the school could create a next-generation, high-profile industrial and technology program. That meeting resulted in, among other things, plans for a high-tech lab being placed at the front of the school, not in the back where previous manufacturing and industrial programs had been hidden.