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Industrial workforce solutions


Innovative programs increase capacity for local manufacturing skills training

Story by Sean Fitzgerald, New North B2B publisher

Factory orders are on the rise among northeast Wisconsin manufacturers, a strong indication that economic recovery is poised to ramp up in the region.

ACCORDING TO THE 2013 Manufacturing Vitality Index released last month from Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance, 97 percent of producers responding to the annual survey indicated they expect their financial health to be either healthy or quite healthy during the next six to 12 months, while 93 percent anticipate increased or level sales receipts for 2013 compared with this past year.

It’s great news considering manufacturing still represents 23 percent of all employment in northeast Wisconsin, a figure that could climb closer to a quarter of the local workforce as plants anticipate additional hiring during the first quarter of 2013, according to the vitality index.

Despite the promise of industrial expansion, manufacturers in the region continue their struggles to attract qualified, skilled labor, a challenge that threatens the ability of some to fulfill increased demand for their products. The quantity and quality of applicants for positions in welding, computer numerical-controlled machinists and engineers fall far short of the number of open positions many manufacturers have available. In fact, of the companies responding to the vitality index survey – which represents more than 150 of the region’s largest manufacturers – nearly one in two anticipate some difficulty finding local talent in 2013, up from 29 percent in 2011.

“Manufacturers may have a market for their products, and in some cases may even have orders to fill, but so often they don’t have the people available to be able to fill those orders,” said Mike Kawleski, public affairs manager for Georgia-Pacific in Green Bay and the chair of the communications task force for NEW Manufacturing Alliance.

It’s become a serious issue the manufacturing alliance has recognized and attempted to draw greater attention toward during the past three years. The combination of an aging, retiring workforce with a vast skill set in various aspects of advanced manufacturing along with a relative drought of younger students entering such careers has lead to dire concern among northeast Wisconsin manufacturers.

Kawleski said a number of out-of-date, ill-fated stereotypes about manufacturing careers continue to persist among high school students, and often moreover from their parents.

“It’s all the “D” words: dirty, dangerous, dusty, dark and dead end,” Kawleski said, citing the mistaken perceptions the alliance is attempting to allay.

The misperceptions become an issue human resources staff for area manufacturers continue to battle.

“When we go out (recruiting and hiring), there’s still this negative thought about what manufacturing is,” said Scott Kettler, general manager with Neenah-based Plexus Corp., which is currently building a 473,000-sq. ft. new plant and hopes to hire an additional 300 production workers when it opens the facility later this year.

Finding solutions

THERE ARE, HOWEVER, innovative approaches to building these skills in the workforce quickly, as well as for the long term.

A unique program launched through Fond du Lac-based Moraine Park Technical College late this past year aims to develop a crop of entry-level welders and CNC machine operators in less than four months of training. Dubbed “bootcamps,” the program takes eager job seekers through a 15-week intensive session which pairs them with a partnering employer through an internship. When the participant finishes the program, they earn a certificate from Moraine Park and hopefully a job offer from the employer, said JoAnn Hall, executive dean of economic and workforce development at Moraine Park.

“These employers’ intent is to hire,” Hall said. “They really want to be offering jobs.”

The program has already enlisted 22 manufacturers from across its service area, most of which have immediate job openings for skilled positions in their facilities.

“They’re actually looking for folks with a higher level of skills, but they’re committed to training them for the long term,” Hall said, noting they’ve experienced a good deal of interest for job seekers. These are attractive jobs, she said, with many local companies participating in the bootcamp programs offering starting wages in a range of $15 to $18 an hour.

The inaugural CNC machining bootcamp – which wraps up in early January – had 135 applicants that tested to qualify for the bootcamp, which evaluated basic math, reading and mechanical aptitude. From that group, 15 were selected to begin the program this past fall, and 12 are set to graduate with a certificate from Moraine Park in coming weeks. A second CNC machining bootcamp, as well the first welding bootcamp, are slated to begin in February, Hall said.

Fond du Lac-based stainless steel transport tank manufacturer Brenner Tank is one of the early partners with Moraine Park on its welding skill development program, and hopes to secure as many as four interns during the inaugural welding bootcamp in February through the Fond du Lac campus, according to Dawn Peterson, human resources manager for Brenner Tank.

She said the company recently celebrated a pair of 35-year anniversaries for two of its welders and a 40-year anniversary for another. That’s just a snapshot of the company’s soon-to-retire workforce, which the company has been challenged to replace.

“We have had difficulty finding the skilled labor at the level where people can come in and be successful right away,” said Peterson, noting it’s a dilemma because business is good for Brenner. “Our orders and our backlog are strong.”

Hall said a recent Trade Adjustment Assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Labor will enable Moraine Park to purchase five virtual welding machines to employ in the welding bootcamps, a capital investment the college will fully complete by October. No small cost at $54,000 each, the equipment is similar to patient simulators used by healthcare students – providing immediate reactions and feedback to the student based upon how they use the machine – but doesn’t burn through other material resources like welding gases or metal, keeping program expenses down. The virtual welding equipment offers a realistic simulation, Hall said, all the way down to striking an arc.

Higher-level skills

FOSTERING SIMILAR SKILLS with a bit more training, Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton received a $3 million federal grant this past fall to develop the Advanced Manufacturing Pathways Plus project, which will increase the school’s capacity to train various advanced manufacturing skills.

The three-year grant will specifically allow the school to add more class sections, hire additional instructors, and create a variety of mobile applications tied to skill training, said Steve Straub, dean of manufacturing at Fox Valley Tech. Straub said the advanced manufacturing pathways program focuses on providing technical diplomas or associate’s degrees in four different areas: electronics/automation, welding and metal fabrication, flexographic printing and publishing, and machine tooling.

Coincidentally, the recently released manufacturing vitality index from NEW Manufacturing Alliance cited CNC machinists, engineers, welders and machine operators among the five leading occupations most difficult to fill among manufacturers in the region.

“That’s pretty consistent with the areas of focus that we’re working on here,” Straub said of the program.

The local manufacturing workforce skill shortage is illustrated in a recent analysis Straub and his peers conducted which found 2,900 fulltime positions posted in northeast Wisconsin this past October on TechConnect for five high-skill manufacturing-related jobs. Training programs related to those jobs from Lakeshore, Northeast Wisconsin, Moraine Park and Fox Valley technical colleges produced a combined 800 graduates this past year, leaving a severe deficit to replace retiring workers in these jobs.

“There are a lot more job openings than there are qualified job candidates at this point,” Straub noted.

Each time Fox Valley Tech has been able to expand its program reach in advanced manufacturing, students have been there to fill the courses, Straub said. The college already has enough students registered for machine tooling to begin a summer section this year, a first for that program. Its graduates land jobs quickly – 100 percent of its Class of 2011 students were employed within six months of graduation, some receiving salaries as high as $43,600 after just six months.

Elite welders

MOST MANUFACTURERS STRUGGLING to find welders with significant experience and high-level certifications often recruit from outside the region because such qualifications are in short supply here in northeast Wisconsin.

It’s unfortunate, because importing such skills can be costly, and those skills continue to be in high demand among the region’s marine manufacturers and food processing facilities.

Early in 2012, Green Bay-based Northeast Wisconsin Technical College unveiled a four-year welder-fabricator apprenticeship program designed in partnership with the state Department of Workforce Development in response to the needs of Wisconsin’s heavy manufacturing sector. Structured under the objective guidelines of the state’s apprenticeship program, this relatively new endeavor entails 8,000 hours of intense training – including more than 7,500 hours on the job and an additional 440 hours of classroom instruction. Apprentices are paid for both the time working on the job and in the classroom. When they successfully finish the four-year program, they’ll receive a journeyman’s welding card.

The program came together following years of requests from private industry to help cultivate more highly skilled welders in the region, according to Todd Kiel, apprenticeship program manager at Northeast Wisconsin Tech. In its first year, the program has a handful of apprentices from an area paper manufacturer.

Kiel hopes a second cohort of apprentices can begin the program later this year, but has struggled to find a pool of employers willing to make such a long-term investment in training a welder. Training costs continue to increase as material costs rise.

“Employers are asking for more and more hands-on training,” Kiel said. “It’s really a good training model. It works well.”

Additionally, Kiel argues the apprenticeship training model engenders a strong sense of loyalty among the employee. It also helps the apprentice build a relative portfolio of credentials and certifications.

The long road ahead

WHILE THE AFOREMENTIONED solutions may provide some human resources reprieve to northeast Wisconsin manufacturers in the next few years, an additional challenge looms out a decade and longer. With Baby Boomers retiring and birth rates falling, demographic trends  suggest the issue of replacing skilled manufacturing jobs will continue in the region.

Educators and workforce development leaders recognize this trend, and have implemented programs at the high school and middle school levels to expose more students to careers in manufacturing, touting the use of advanced technology, high pay and benefits, and opportunities available right here at home.

Some programs – particularly for junior and senior level high school students – allow students to earn dual credit toward a skilled manufacturing diploma so that they can advance through the technical college faster.

Despite all the promotion and positive enforcement provided in school, ultimately it’s often mistaken perceptions from parents that attempt to steer their children away from jobs in manufacturing. They’re often the one’s holding on to the D-word stereotypes that illustrated manufacturing in the 1960s and 1970s, but hardly represent the modern, technology-driven industry of the 21st century.