Enterprise Minnesota Magazine - November 2012
HELPING MANUFACTURERS GROW PROFITABLY
Greater than the Sum of the Parts
In communities across the state, coordinated efforts to address the qualified workforce shortage are yielding better results than any single manufacturing company or educational institution could create independently.
By Kate Peterson
By now, the stories and data are so familiar to manufacturers they almost seem cliché. In recent decades, the U.S. manufacturing sector was declared dead, interest in manufacturing careers has evaporated, and high schools and technical colleges have lost enrollment in manufacturing- related classes. Local economies have suffered as the growth of manufacturers that generate high-paying jobs with solid benefits has been hampered by the limited pool of talent available.
For many years, manufacturers worked independently to fill the gaps, advertising openings for positions that often went unfilled indefinitely. Or, they tried novel approaches to recruiting and training employees, only to find nearby manufacturing firms luring those newly-minted workers with more generous compensation packages.
While the qualified worker shortage persists, many areas are trying a new approach to the problem. Working collaboratively, manufacturers, educational institutions and government officials are able to dispel myths about manufacturing, promote careers directly to high school students, their teachers and families, and shape programs for training current and future employees. Often, administrators at high schools and technical colleges are taking a lead role, bringing manufacturers together in ways that allow them to act as collaborators in increasing the overall pool of talent, rather than competitors fighting over the same finite group of potential employees.
Joint efforts are helping restore a strong, qualified workforce for individual companies, industries and local economies. They also are capturing the attention of elected officials, who reinforce their efforts by using the bully pulpit to draw attention to the issue and increase interest in manufacturing careers.
For those regions that haven’t yet embraced a cooperative approach, two Minnesota communities offer excellent examples of how working together can produce tangible results.
Bringing long-time experience to a new high school
Sometimes, the most effective collaborative efforts center around a specific project. Consider the Alexandria area in west central Minnesota, for example. The region boasts a thriving contract manufacturing sector, as well as a core of packaging equipment, aluminum extrusion and plastics manufacturers. Still, despite their relatively high profile as economic engines and employers in the community, manufacturers in the Alexandria area face many of the same challenges as other regions when it comes to encouraging promising potential employees to consider manufacturing careers.
Al Sholts is chief operating officer at Alexandria Industries, a contract manufacturer with approximately 380 employees in the Alexandria area. “There aren’t enough machinists, for example, but we also need people in mechatronics, machine building, machine assembly and engineering,” Sholts says.
In recent years, the high school programs that give students exposure to the manufacturing field have faced diminishing interest, Sholts says. Even in Alexandria, where the broad base of manufacturers is widely recognized as a key component of the area’s economy, Sholts says high school students and their families need to be educated about opportunities in manufacturing. “So we’ve been working to reach out to students, parents and grandparents, who don’t always understand the state of manufacturing in the U.S.,” he says.
Alexandria Technical and Community College President Kevin Kopischke says manufacturers in the area have cooperated on broad issues for decades. In recent years, the group has been involved in career fairs and open houses, but collaboration between manufacturers and educators got a huge boost last fall when local taxpayers approved a new high school building, which will open in the fall of 2014. Because of their history of working together, members of the group were well-positioned to assist with the school.
Over the last year, a group of manufacturers and educators, including the administrators from School District 206 and the technical college, has gathered to discuss the creation of a high-profile industrial program at the new high school. “We are working with them on designing space, labs, location, and in some cases, helping add new curriculum,” Sholts says. “They were very wise. By having everybody involved, the space will truly reflect manufacturing today.”
In the curriculum discussion, the teachers have been very open to the manufacturers’ input, adds Sholts. “This summer they spent time in our factories, and they are trying to develop curriculum that fits into math and science standards within industrial arts,” he says. “These teachers and administrators have just been awesome to work with.”
The manufacturing group also worked with school officials to encourage the inclusion of a high-visibility location for the industrial center. In the center of the new high school, the lab is ideally situated for exposure both during the school day and at after-school events that take place in the auditorium down the main corridor from the industrial area, Sholts explains.
Successes like the high school project increase the group’s credibility and visibility, which enhances the manufacturing sector, and in turn boosts the region’s economy. “We have some very visionary leaders, in all industries, but particularly in manufacturing. They understand that if things go well for them, they are going to go well for the whole community,” Kopischke says.
As board chair of the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission, Kopischke also sees the value of cooperative efforts from a different perspective. “This really increases the credibility of this community, and it helps when everybody is sitting around the same table.”
Joint effort yields solid results
While manufacturers in the Alexandria area have worked together on these issues for some time, relatively new cooperative efforts are also proving fruitful. Manufacturers and educators in the Pine City area have also come together to address regional workforce issues as members of “The Manufacturing Alliance,” which focuses on the I-35 corridor between the Twin Cities and Duluth.
Robert Musgrove, president of Pine City Technical College and the coordinator of the group, says the alliance has created partnerships and programs that encourage high school students and recent graduates to pursue careers in manufacturing. Members have also developed avenues to deliver cost-effective, customized training to small- and medium-sized manufacturers through advanced technology.
There hasn’t always been such a coordinated force for qualified worker development in the Pine City area. After the 2001 crash, Musgrove says, manufacturing program enrollment numbers at the college were down, so he invited company owners and plant managers to discuss possible solutions. “We had always talked to manufacturers for support for our program, but they didn’t talk to each other,” he says.
The companies were facing aging workforces, and all were in need of qualified workers, Musgrove says. “We asked questions,” says Musgrove. “What did they need? What did the data show? What were reasonable things we could do as a group?” They started the alliance in 2004, and the group has continued to meet four or five times each year ever since.
Among the members of the group are Lori and Traci Tapani, co-presidents of Stacy-based Wyoming Machine, a precision metal manufacturing firm with 55 employees. Musgrove says the Tapanis provide the kind of leadership the alliance needs to keep moving forward. They not only encourage other manufacturers to get involved, he says, but they also play a role in broader efforts, such as a statewide initiative to encourage young girls to pursue manufacturing careers, which increases the region’s visibility to outsiders.
While it takes extra time and energy to get involved in these groups, Lori Tapani encourages others to make the effort. “I know they are busy, but I think manufacturers should take every chance they can to participate in career fairs and in articles on this issue, or make presentations at the camps these kids can go to now,” she says.
The Manufacturing Alliance began with the type of outreach and awareness efforts Tapani mentions. Initially, the group focused on demonstrating the potential in manufacturing careers, with events aimed at high school students and their families and teachers, and those out of school who are either unemployed or underemployed.
By 2009, Musgrove says, “The partnership had matured enough to be in a position to apply for a U.S. Department of Labor community-based job training grant.” The alliance won $1.9 million, which it used to fund a mobile technology lab that can be taken to high schools to demonstrate what Musgrove calls “the glamour” of manufacturing.
The grant also funded a video conferencing system that gives companies across the region access to live training classes from their plants or from nearby plants that host employees from other companies. Though the grant funding has officially ended, Musgrove says both of the programs will continue to provide avenues to attract new talent and opportunities to continue skills development among existing employees.
The alliance’s work has paid off in other tangible ways as well. Since the group convened, enrollment in Pine City Technical College’s manufacturing programs has leaped from 12 to 50. “We’re maxed out in manufacturing now,” says Musgrove, adding, “We have 100 percent placement. Every graduate last May had a job by February, many with local firms that are part of the alliance.”
The effort has also attracted the attention of local economic development officials. “If there is a manufacturing company looking at a location, relocation or expansion in this region, I’m going to get a call from the economic development folks to be at the table,” Musgrove says. “We have to be able to show that we have the ability to recruit and train employees in the area.”
Members of the alliance, including Pine City Technical College, recently joined Central Lakes College and St. Cloud Technical Community College to apply for a U.S. Department of Labor grant to further develop the workforce in central Minnesota. The $13.1 million grant will fund programs to connect foreign trade impacted workers, other dislocated workers, veterans and incumbent workers in need of skill enhancement with comprehensive advanced manufacturing training and other student services.
With support from the 360° Manufacturing and Applied Engineering Center of Excellence at Bemidji State University, the grant-funded programs will focus on increasing the quantity, quality and diversity of the manufacturing workforce in Minnesota. The two-year colleges involved in the grant will create new on-campus programs in automation technology, rapid prototyping and plastics.
Musgrove says the Alliance’s successful track record stems from the ongoing commitment of participating companies. “If it’s industry driven, then it’s going to have legs. We can offer some help with staffing, but it needs to be under their leadership,” he says.
Reaching a broader audience
As Kopischke points out, collaborative efforts have more credibility and higher visibility than companies or educational institutions could achieve on their own. Government officials in particular tend to take notice when groups of constituents work thoughtfully on a particular issue.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion, held a hearing on this issue in the U.S. Senate last spring. The hearing, which featured testimony from Enterprise Minnesota President Bob Kill, gave national attention to the manufacturing industry’s vitality and its high demand for qualified workers.
Rep. Erik Paulsen, who chairs the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, is also well-positioned to draw national attention to these issues. “Almost every week I get the chance to visit one of our state’s manufacturing leaders to witness firsthand as they invent and develop the best products in the world. From life-saving medical devices, to healthy food products, Minnesota manufacturing continues to provide cuttingedge innovations and ideal opportunities to pursue a fulfilling career,” Rep. Paulsen says. “The strength of the workforce is critical to the growth of manufacturing in our state and I applaud the communities that join together to attract new workers to the dynamic industry.”
That high-level attention is precisely what is needed to entice young people and their teachers and families to take a close look at the career opportunities in manufacturing.
Traci Tapani is excited about the opportunity manufacturers have to make an impact. “I just think we’re in a golden era here. There is so much national attention focused on manufacturing, from the White House on down, including in the presidential campaign. We couldn’t ask for a better time to get involved,” she says.
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