Northern Kentucky FAME apprentices Kaylee Griffin and Abdou Ba use the circuit training board during class at Gateway Community and Technical College.

Solving the Workforce Shortage

Jan. 26, 2016
From phone calls to state senators to machining classrooms on wheels, manufacturers get creative, in big and small ways, to cultivate workers for skilled positions.

When Jamie Williams was choosing a college major a dozen years ago, she had no grand plans for a career in manufacturing. She started out in elementary education, but to pay her way through school she labored on the paint line at KI, a furniture manufacturer in Green Bay, Wis. The job was repetitive—hanging and removing hooks to mount parts for painting—and the plant sweltered in summer, but it paid better than the alternatives, so she stuck it out.

During her freshman year, Williams moved up to one of the table departments, where the work was more involved, “everything from cutting down pieces of tubing to running a robot so that the weld was complete,” she says. She mastered reading complex shop reports, and soon, her co-workers sought her out with questions and quandaries.

That’s when Williams’ come-to-Jesus moment happened: As her responsibility grew, she began to view manufacturing as a vocation rather than a way to earn money until she found a real job. She switched her major at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to supply chain and operations management. A college degree and several promotions later, she’s a lean process manager at KI. “I just really like this type of work,” Williams says. “It’s fast- paced. I like to be moving. And always having a goal in mind. ”

To fill an expected shortage of 2 million skilled workers over the next decade (according to a 2015 Deloitte/Manufacturing Institute Study), manufacturing needs to convert many more hard-working problem solvers like Williams. Figuring it’s unrealistic to expect droves of collegians to similarly stumble into their dream job on the shop floor, some manufacturers have decided to make their own workforce hay. The effort doesn’t have to be elaborate: as these stories attest, it can begin with one determined person reaching out to schools, local governments and fellow employers to get a pipeline of engaged, well-trained workers up and running.

Mike Hirsch, vice president of operations for passenger car steering systems at Robert Bosch in Florence, Ky., had a tall hill to climb when he started visiting apprenticeship programs in Indiana and the Carolinas, hoping he could start one back home. “We had tremendous growth from 2011 to 2014 and still do,” he says of his facility. “We ran out of skilled workforce, essentially, and unfortunately we are not the only ones in the area.”

A 2012 Northern Kentucky Industrial Park study found that the tri-county area where Bosch resides has a shortage of 600 industrial maintenance workers and 2,700 manufacturing operators. Recruiting from out of state didn’t go far to fill the gap, nor did companies “stealing people from each other,” says Hirsch. At an industry event in 2014, Hirsch learned about KY FAME (Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education), a manufacturing training program started by executives at Toyota’s Georgetown, Ky., facility a few years before. For a five-semester apprenticeship, students attend community or technical college two days a week and work three days. They are paid at least $12 an hour to start, with pay going up from there. By the time they graduate as industrial technicians, they are making $25 to $35 an hour.

Hirsch set out to start a chapter of KY FAME in his own region of Northern Kentucky, pitching the idea to other manufacturers in the area with similar workforce needs. To lay the groundwork, he and colleagues began visiting high schools repeatedly to explain and promote the program, met with parents and hosted open houses.

Last year, the chapter had close to 100 applicants for its first cohort of 24 students. This year, 12 companies will sponsor 27 students. Students need a combined ACT of 22 or higher to apply. They have to write an essay, and go through a detailed interview process where recruiters see “how they react to certain problems.”

“This is a start,” says Hirsch. “An up-front investment. We of course anticipate, hope and will really push very hard to grow this number so it will at some point satisfy the demand.”

Their biggest challenge “was and remains to raise enough awareness and interest in manufacturing for young high school students, including parents, to look at and consider it compared to going to a four-year college,” he says. “We are pushing very, very hard to get into every school, to reach out and bring the kids and the parents into the plant.”

A recent open house brought 200 students and their parents to Bosch. Plans call for a second track for entry-level manufacturing technicians. 

Hirsch likes that there’s a clear path for additional training and advancement. “They can sign up for enhanced operator and get a good understanding and a basic skill set, which makes them a perfect candidate for the industrial maintenance apprenticeship,” which comes with an associate’s degree. “And that degree they can take and get a bachelor’s degree in mechanical or electrical engineering.”

Starting Somewhere

Larry Taitel, the president of Convertech, a custom parts manufacturer in Wharton, N.J., is in the spot Mike Hirsch was in a few years ago, but with fewer resources because his company is small—only 45 employees. For decades, Taitel has struggled to find qualified machinists to hire as his business grew, but it’s only been in the past year that he has had to stop seeking new work for his company because the situation is so dire.

“I could hire five machinists right now,” says Taitel, who has an MBA but is working overtime filling in on the machines to meet demand. “Probably more like 10.”

Taitel is looking for advanced machinists. “They talk about CNC machining, but what’s lacking is the manual machining,” he says. He envies the high school machinist program at Passaic County Technical Institute, with its abundant lathes and milling machines, and students who’ve spent time making parts on all that different machinery while doing paid apprenticeships at local companies. “It should be the model for the state,” he says.

Taitel says that whenever he attends a manufacturing roundtable or meets customers, “everybody is clamoring for machinists.” At Convertech, untrained “button-pushers” start at $13 to $15 an hour. Top-level machinists clock in at $40 an hour, yet “the schools in New Jersey don’t even present it as a possibility of a career.”

In the past year, Taitel has been contacting vocational schools and community colleges, hoping to talk to them about adding a machinist curriculum, something he says hasn’t been offered in his area in 30 years. His calls went unanswered and emails unreturned until he pled his case to state Sen. Anthony Bucco, who “made a phone call and got [schools] to call me within minutes.” He now has meetings set up with several technical schools he’s been wooing.

Creative Thinking

KI Furniture, where Jamie Williams works, has the toughest time filling jobs in electromechanical maintenance, automation, and tool and die machining.

“And quite honestly, it’s even getting to be tough in the marketplace to hire general labor,” says Andy Bushmaker, KI’s human resource manager.

To help develop workers for the more specialized jobs, KI hosts three to four post-high-school apprenticeships per year through programs at a local career academy developed through the Northeast Wisconsin (NEW) Manufacturing Alliance. KI also hosts two different youth apprenticeships—one in the engineering department with a high school student who’s already working on college credit, and one with an at-risk youth education program that currently has seven students enrolled in school right on site. The students spend two hours a day on high school coursework in the classrooms at the plant, and four to six hours working at apprenticeships there. They are paid $7.25 an hour to start, a wage that escalates as they progress and earn their high school diplomas. Most end up going on to college, says Bushmaker, and some stay on at the plant.

NEW, whose membership now consists of more than 160 companies in 18 counties, started in 2006 with one man—Paul Rauscher, the owner of packaging and paper machinery manufacturing company, EMT International. According to Ann Franz, NEW’s director, at the time Rauscher was concerned that in a region where 23% of all jobs are in manufacturing, people were retiring and no one could replace them. Technical colleges didn’t have the right programs for the increasingly skilled workforce. Even four-year colleges were lacking—not a single college in the region had an engineering program.

NEW started by reaching out to all the Green Bay-area high schools. ”You can develop all the training in the world, but if no one wants to sign up, it doesn’t matter, right?” says Franz. “We brought all the educators, all the administrators, even the maintenance people to tour at Georgia-Pacific [paper plant]. To start to change that mindset, that you can still be successful without having a four-year degree."

Franz knew they were on to something when they took more than 100 school employees on a Georgia Pacific plant tour. A plant supervisor mentioned their starting wage was $50,000. “There was an audible gasp in the room,” Franz recalls. “A lot of those teachers had a four-year degree and they didn’t start at $50,000 a year.”

The mood began to shift. “Four or five years ago, the schools I’d never heard from—or the ones that said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll send our D students’---I get calls from every week.” A recent mock-Hollywood premiere for NEW’s video teaching tool, Get Real, brought in almost 300 teachers from 70 schools within a 120-mile radius to walk the “red carpet.” “If we had done that four or five years ago,” says Franz, “no one would have come.”

The most in-demand manufacturing job in the region is consistently CNC machinist, says Franz, citing numbers from UW OshKosh’s Manufacturing Vitality Index. To fill those jobs, NEW has not only reached out to schools but brought training to their doorstep, investing with the help of a local workforce agency in four mobile labs outfitted with machining equipment. The labs travel to rural schools that don’t have a machine-shop on site. The schools pay $5,000 to host the lab (and for poorer schools that fee is $2,000 thanks to a grant). The mobile lab also started going to prisons to train machinists--a program that was so successful, the state corrections agency now has its own mobile lab.

NEW has also helped schools set up student-run machine shops, at KI, Georgia-Pacific and Lindquist Machine. “They’re actually running their own business and doing work for companies, and the school gets the profit that they can put back into getting the latest equipment,” says Franz.

Students earn money for scholarships, based on how well they produce. “So it makes them measure twice and cut once, because they know if they make a mistake, it cuts into their profit.”

In Green Bay, it’s especially critical for manufacturers to tell their story, says Franz, “because there are other industry sectors competing for that talent, from healthcare to construction.” Besides, manufacturers have a one-up on the competition in Green Bay: They offer the highest average wage.

Popular Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of IndustryWeek, create an account today!