Workforce Training Options Multiply Location Advantages for Manufacturers

Federally funded and locally operated workforce investment training programs are an effective way to fill the void for recruiting and training skilled workers.

News reports frequently remind us that finding the right person for the job is proving tough for many companies. The manufacturing industry in particular is cited as having the most difficulty seeking skilled manufacturing trades workers, engineers and IT staff. The good news is that there are solutions. These solutions can provide quality labor to the manufacturer as well as help to build a skilled and reliable workforce for the local community.

Federally funded and locally operated workforce investment training programs are an effective way to fill the void for recruiting and training skilled workers. In Southern California's County of San Bernardino, a strong Workforce Investment Board (WIB) comprised of many of the region's major manufacturers and public partners has proven to be adept at tailoring workforce training programs to meet the workforce needs of existing manufacturers and to provide a lucrative labor pool to companies considering the region for expansion.

What makes the WIB programs and incentives so beneficial is that they can be customized to meet the needs of each business, whether that company is experiencing a shortage of skilled labor, seeks training incentives, or is in search of a competitive location with a reliable workforce.

Now more than ever workforce related factors must be considered during the corporate site selection process beyond simply the real estate decision. Some of these factors can include: workforce recruitment and retention, labor market saturation, competition for skilled labor, turnover and salary levels.

Access to workforce training programs and incentives in addition to workforce recruitment and customized training programs played a key role in United Furniture Industries' decision to expand into the County.

Mississippi-based United Furniture Industries (UFI) is one of the largest domestic producers of upholstered furniture, sold primarily under the Simmons brand name. At the end of 2011, UFI located to a 505,192-square-foot manufacturing and logistics plant in Victorville, Calif. While the quality of available space and proximity to major West Coast markets were top considerations, the next most important factor was a skilled and readily available workforce.

This workforce need was supplemented by job recruitment and screening that could be coordinated by the County's Department of Workforce Development and on-the-job training dollars provided to the company with up to 50% reimbursement for some employees' training periods.

The value of the Workforce Investment Board extends beyond recruitment to retention. For example, three years ago, the San Bernardino County Workforce Investment Board's Business Resource Team supported La-Z-Boy with federal On-the-Job Training funds to hire 15 full-time employees. Today these employees are still working for the Redlands-based furniture maker.

"When home sales went down, people were not buying as much furniture and yet we needed to hire to continue operations," said Jose de la Cerra, Human Resources Manager of La-Z-Boy West. After the company was approached by the County's Business Resource Team, they were able to hire through the On-The-Job Training program that reimburses a portion of the wages paid during a specific training period.

The Workforce Investment Board's Business Resource Team also assisted with recruiting by bringing La-Z-Boy qualified candidates who have remained with the company.

"A business takes a risk when hiring. We take senior staff away from production to train the new employees," said de la Cerra. "But the On-The-Job Training program, with recruiting support and assistance, gave us a great group of people with the right skill sets and attitude. It has benefitted both us and the community.

United Furniture Industries and La-Z Boy are both effective examples of how public agencies can build partnerships with local businesses to create and sustain jobs.

More importantly when employers sign up for these services, they work closely with a member of a Business Resource Team to guide them through the application, recruiting and hiring processes. In this way the team can help employers of all sizes to hire and train candidates who become loyal and dedicated employees.

At a time when manufacturers are struggling to locate skilled workers, the Workforce Investment Board is a reliable resource in training new employees.

The County of San Bernardino Workforce Investment Board helped local manufacturer California Steel Industries, Inc. (CSI) graduate 34 electricians and 17 mechanics from its craft development program. CSI is the leading producer of flat rolled steel and steel products in the Western United States. It employs 900 workers at its 450-acre plant in Fontana, Calif.

The in-house program designed for CSI provides on-the-job training and mentoring for employees to become "A" level electricians, mechanics or machinists.

Currently, CSI has 43 employees in their training programs who attend classes tailored specifically to their respective trades at local junior colleges. According to Brett Guge, Executive Vice President - Finance and Administration at California Steel Industries, Inc., the program has been very successful in developing high quality technicians who have become fully qualified craft workers at CSI.

"Our company faced a shortage of skilled craft workers as our current workforce neared retirement age," said Guge. "Even in this economy, we could not find qualified people to step into these positions."

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 provided the framework for a unique national workforce preparation and employment system designed to meet both the needs of the nation's businesses and the needs of job seekers and those who want to further their careers.

Considering the lack of skilled workers for our nation's manufacturers and the ongoing economic challenges many corporations continue to face, the need for strong public-private partnerships is more important than ever. When local Workforce Investment Boards understand and recognize what local industries need and in turn, are responsive to those needs by tailoring their workforce training programs and incentives, the end result is a win-win for all.

The key to success in a fast-paced regional, national and global economy relies on the competitive skills and abilities of our labor force. Creation of a skilled workforce must be the goal of not just the manufacturing community but also the cities and towns that seek to recruit and retain those valued industries.

Mary Jane Olhasso is Economic Development Agency Administrator for the County of San Bernardino.

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