Manufacturers Get Creative to Fill Workforce Pipeline
By David Hodes
When talking to economic developers in any part of the country, one burning issue keeps coming up: filling the workforce pipeline for manufacturers. Top of that list: Welders. But as manufacturing technology has advanced, more and more workers have to have a higher skill set to work as programmers or as machine maintenance people or as CNC operators just to name a few.
Today’s advanced manufacturing worker has to be versed in computer science, mechatronics and robotics, lasers, and pneumatics because all of those come into play in today’s advanced manufacturing operations.
Other factors in the growing urgency to fill that pipeline are the aging of the current manufacturing workforce, which are preparing to retire, and a lack of skilled replacement workers. A report by the Advanced Technology Services found that 55 percent of the largest U.S. manufacturers polled — those with $1 billion or more in revenue — will be hardest hit by skill shortages, costing each $100 million or more over the next five years. Half of those respondents also said they currently have 11 or more open positions for skilled workers, with 31 percent having over 20 open slots.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, in 2013, the average manufacturing worker in the U.S. earned $77,506 annually.
Clearly, well-paying jobs are available, but finding the workers to fill those jobs has forced manufacturers to be creative, form collaborations and change the negative perception of manufacturing as a career goal.
More and more, manufacturers and training centers are partnering with community colleges and four-year academic institutions to assist future workers in achieving career goals, and changing the perception of manufacturing as a dead-end job in a dirty environment with little to no social interaction or intellectual challenge.
Now they can get baccalaureate degrees through these partnerships and, in the future, graduate degrees in certain manufacturing-related occupations.
One of the universities that is making that transition to help fill the pipeline is Washburn University, through the Washburn Institute of Technology (WIT), created in 2008 from the former Kaw Area Technical School. One example is the 350,000-square-foot Mars Chocolate North America plant that opened last February, expected to create 200 full-time jobs. “Their workforce needs were at the forefront of their decision making, and I can’t tell you how many times we met to describe what we could do and how we could help them,” says Dr. Jerry Farley, president of Washburn University.
WIT is an academic unit at the university, just like the law school and the business school and the nursing school.
“Bringing in a technical program into a traditional liberal arts type of campus like ours is just not done,” Farley says. “What we are trying to do with that integration is offer students, beginning in high school, a seamless pathway to whatever education goal they may have.”
To keep up with the changes in technology and what students need to learn, each of the 31 programs at WIT has an advisory board made up of employers that are employing students out of the program.
Farley says that nearly every manufacturing prospect looking to locate in the area wants to discuss technical training and the workforce available there as their top priority.
Dr. Gillian Gabelmann, associate dean for technical education at WIT, says that, when looking at the Mars plant, so much of the process is automated that working there is really more about troubleshooting. It’s not the repetitive work many people associate with manufacturing.
“It’s not maintenance work,” she says. “You are the person that is making sure that everything is going OK. You are not doing the same thing every day. And it pays extremely well.”
In Clanton, Ala., at the LeCroy Advanced Manufacturing Academy inside the LeCroy Career Technical Center (LCTC), they are now working with a $50 million bond from the state Legislature to update and renovate its training programs that date back to 1969.
Tommy Glasscock, director of the LCTC, says that the center used $30 million of the bond money to rebuild training programs, and $20 million for new and innovative course development in partnership with Chilton-Clanton campus of the Jefferson State Community College system.
In building that program through the partnership, Glasscock says, they created a dual enrollment system where a high school secondary tech teacher works alongside a two-year college teacher, teaching 11th and 12th graders, along with some employees of Johnson Controls looking to upgrade their skills. “It’s not a typical lab setting that you would see for these 11th and 12th graders,” he says. “And so that is kind of the way that we are painting it. We are still laying the groundwork for that now.”
The students trained in those programs will have employment opportunities with both Johnson Controls’ CRH North America Inc. automotive production plant in Clanton, maker of car interior components; and Kumi Manufacturing Alabama in Clanton, product designer and manufacturer of injection, sheet molded and formed fiber felt products. “The training for both those companies is the same,” he says. “They both need maintenance people that know programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and industrial motors. And these guys are not your typical grease monkeys in today’s manufacturing operations. They are what I would call the blue-collar engineer.”
LeCroy just started a pilot program in computer science with the University of Alabama where high school seniors get what they call early college enrollment. “And that has changed the perception of who we are,” Glasscock says. “Now we are getting that advanced diploma student who wants to go to the university. And the university wants to get these kids enrolled, first in some online pre-engineering courses, then later in a computer science course starting next year where they can get college credit for it.
“For us to be successful, we have to start talking about careers at an elementary school level,” Glasscock continues. “If we get them excited at that level, by the time they get to middle school and high school, they are ready to be trained.”
One of the oldest training and apprenticeship program partnerships in the South, in place since 1952, is between Huntington Ingalls Industries, ship builder for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard and headquartered in Newport News, Va.; and the Ingalls Apprentice School, now located inside the Haley Reeves Barbour Maritime Training Academy in Pascagoula, Miss., a 70,000-square-foot facility that opened in November 2013.
The academy partnered with the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College to give students the ability to take courses that offer academic credits and not just workforce credit. With 400 to 600 apprentices being trained in 12 different program areas, co-enrolled as both students at MGCCC and in the Ingalls apprenticeship program, it is expected that the facility will graduate a significant number of associate degree recipients in maritime technology.
Apprentices will take two classes each semester tuition-free over the course of their four-year apprenticeship program. Ingalls will pay the cost of training for these students.
A student first takes a challenge exam through the community college and then goes on to take the courses offered by the academy. “This is different because before we only offered the ability to get workforce credits, which led to associate degree programs and certification,” says Garry Mercer, manager of Ingalls apprenticeship program.
“Our hope is that we can formalize this year an articulation agreement with one of the local four-year universities and build our maritime associates degree into a four-year program. The cutting edge piece of that is the way that we are getting the credit awarded.”
The apprenticeship programs also include leadership training as well, Mercer says. “We want to build the whole individual,” he says. “The students that are applying for these jobs want that understanding, because they want to get to the next step.”
In the Midwest, partnering with Chicago non-profit Jane Addams Resource Corp. (JARC) is Freedman Seating Co., manufacturers of seats used in the transportation industry such as on the Chicago Transit Authority buses.
JARC, founded in 1985 in Chicago as an economic development agency, has evolved over time and focuses on job training and workforce development with training on CNC machine and welding.
Says Craig Freedman, president of Freedman, they recently worked with JARC to tailor-make two apprenticeship programs for his company: one in welding, one in brake press (a machine tool for bending sheet metal). Freedman is donating a robotic welding machine to JARC. “Robotic welding is the latest skill set that we require,” Freedman says.
JARC has relationships with many companies. “But in this case, we stepped up and worked with them to tailor some solutions specific to our needs,” Freedman says. “Call it a sort of addendum to their existing programs.”
Still, the biggest challenge to filling the worker pipeline in manufacturing is changing the perception. Bringing technical training inside a four-year institution like Washburn University, an institution with a solid academic reputation, carries with it the ambience of higher education, Farley says. “And that perceptual change means that it’s OK to do this and it is going to give you a job that is not manufacturing in the past but manufacturing in the future. When a post-secondary student makes a commitment to pursue a technical education, they do it now with a sense that it is productive and honorable.”
For complete details about the organizations featured in this article, visit:
Chilton County (Ala.) Schools
Illustration by khunaspix at Free Digital Photos.net