Enterprise Minnesota Magazine - September 2012
HELPING MANUFACTURERS GROW PROFITABLY
Facing a qualified worker shortage, forward-thinking businesses work to encourage today’s students to pursue tomorrow’s manufacturing and trade careers.
By Andrea Lahouze
Bill and Karen Jansen, owners of North Anoka Plumbing, display the Trade Scholarship they award to graduating seniors with Paul Neubauer, St. Francis High School principal.
Eighteen-year-old Bryce Brethorst spent the summer at UTC Aerospace Systems, an aerospace systems and components manufacturer in Jamestown, North Dakota working as a machine shop assistant. In exchange, the company is helping him to pay for post-secondary studies at Alexandria Technical and Community College, where he’ll attend advanced machining courses this fall. Brethorst already has an offer to be a full-time machinist at UTC once he graduates.
Trained graduates like Brethorst are increasingly valuable in Minnesota—and increasingly difficult to find. In the 2012 State of Manufacturing® survey, 31 percent of Minnesota manufacturing executives reported concern over finding qualified workers, up more than double from 14 percent in 2011. As a sector, manufacturing has one of the state’s oldest workforces, with 45 percent older than 44, according to a 2008 report by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
With about 700,000 Minnesotans expected to retire over the next decade, manufacturers will be hard-pressed to find qualified replacements. The challenge lies in cultivating that talent pool -- now.
The challenge is compounded by students’ misperception that manufacturing jobs pay poorly and are dirty, dangerous and monotonous work. Though today’s manufacturing careers belie that image, many students shy away before understanding the breadth of career opportunities in manufacturing. The industry now faces a daunting task of realigning perception with reality.
The first step is to encourage students who are already on track for manufacturing careers. Much of the support happens on a local scale. For St. Francis High School students like Brethorst who show an interest in skilled trade work, North Anoka Plumbing owners Bill and Karen Jansen have established the North Anoka Plumbing Trade Scholarship, which awards $500 scholarships to two students each year who plan to pursue skilled trade careers. The company is among the first in Minnesota to offer a trade-oriented scholarship to high school students.
The idea for the scholarship arose after the Jansens attended St. Francis High School’s annual Scholarship Night, which presents many graduating seniors with scholarships sponsored by about 30 different businesses and organizations in the local community. They noticed that among many scholarships, there was nothing for a trade school.
“We wanted to help grads get a start at learning lifelong skills and encourage teens to go into technical college, and go into trades to make a living,” Karen Jansen says. “It’s been good for us and our family, and we wanted to encourage others to do the same.”
The Jansens let local teachers nominate students for the scholarship each year. Each recipient is “generally a student who may have taken all of the metals classes and all of the automotive classes and as many of the woods classes as their schedule would allow. They typically will use up all their elective opportunities in school to take classes in those areas,” says Paul Neubauer, St. Francis High School principal.
Brethorst won a scholarship after becoming a staple in the school’s machining and welding classes. He says it will help offset a portion of tuition bills that aren’t covered by UTC. He believes the scholarship could inspire other student recipients who were on the fence about post-secondary education to pursue it.
Neubauer has similar hopes for the scholarship’s recipients, saying the scholarship has “provided a pathway” for students to begin post-secondary education.
“Even in the most difficult times over the last couple of years, our community has continued to support our students through scholarships,” Neubauer says. “That speaks volumes about the support that our community has for our kids and for our education system.”
On a broader scale, students in West Central Minnesota who show an interest and aptitude for manufacturing-related skills can gain hands-on exposure to opportunities through the Bridges Career Academies and Workplace Connection, which offers classes in 22 school districts. In the Manufacturing Academy, which is one of several industry-oriented academies within Bridges Career Academies, industry professionals develop course curricula with high school instructors. Students can take courses at their high school or at Central Lakes College, and can earn college credit and a diploma or degree in Mechanical Drafting & Design, Machine Tool Technology or Robotics. The Bridges program also arranges job shadows at local businesses, and hosts an annual Career Exploration Fair at Central Lakes College. The 2012 career fair drew about 100 local businesses and more than 2,000 high school students from 20 different school districts. Twyla Flaws, personnel manager at Clow Stamping Company, says the event is a team effort to bolster the local talent pool.
“It’s not about [different businesses] trying to hire the same kids,” Flaws explains. “You don’t represent yourself. You go there to represent career opportunities and career choices for kids. It’s not a job fair; it’s a career fair.”
Spreading the word
Along Highway 371 in Brainerd, a billboard proclaims, “Manufacturing is not a job … it’s a career.” The billboard features Erica Morrison, a young quality inspector at Pequot Tool & Manufacturing, a precision milling, turning and CNC fabricator in Pequot Lakes. Morrison joined the company after a stint as a Subway sandwich artist, and worked her way up from packager to her current position with both on-the-job and online training offered through DMG Mori Seiki University, which specializes in advanced machining courses.
“She is a great example of a person building their career in manufacturing,” says Debby Hoel, Pequot Tool human resources manager.
The billboard is one of a series of media ads sponsored by Dream It. Do It. (DIDI), a national campaign kick started by National Association of Manufacturers and The Manufacturing Institute. The campaign’s mission is to connect students’ interests to well-paying manufacturing career opportunities, and to redesign the image of manufacturing in the minds of students, parents and educators.
In West Central Minnesota, Pequot Tool joined forces with other local manufacturers, including Clow Stamping Company, Lakeland Mold Company, Graphic Packaging and Lindar to promote manufacturing. The group worked with Central Lakes College and the Manufacturing and Applied Engineering Center of Excellence’s 360º organization to bring DIDI to the region. 360º is a collaboration of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and Minnesota companies that works to prepare students for manufacturing and applied engineering careers by offering access to more than 60 specialized programs. Students can take courses on campus at partnering institutions, or online, and receive training ranging from certificates to master’s degrees.
“We’re all struggling to find high-tech workers,” Hoel says of other participating DIDI companies in the area. “We recognized that we had a common problem and if we worked together, we’d probably be more effective than if each person worked by themselves.”
In addition to the locally-inspired billboards, the companies are creating videos that show how classroom learning can connect to diverse career opportunities at each company. They will circulate the videos to local schools and post them on YouTube and the Dream It. Do It. website.
Flaws says the high ratio of students to high school counselors has compounded the challenge of giving students a solid understanding of local career opportunities. She hopes the outreach efforts will encourage more students to stay in Minnesota’s West Central region when they begin job searching.
“There are hundreds of students to one counselor, and so it’s hard to do any kind of career path conversations with that kind of a need. Kids just don’t understand the opportunities that exist in our community. We really need to expose them to that high-demand, high-pay career information because we want to get them educated and employed in our area. We’ve got some of the best and brightest. We need to keep them,” Flaws says.
This proactive attitude also prompted participating DIDI companies to work with the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce to form a Manufacturing Alliance.
Across Minnesota, Hoel says that ongoing support from the business community will be essential to reversing the public’s negative perception of manufacturing careers. She stresses that there is no “quick fix” to building a larger talent pool.
Generating public awareness “takes a real concerted effort,” Hoel says. “Besides talking to the students, it’s important to talk to the people that influence those students. So we also want to get that message out to their teachers, to their sports coaches, to their parents and grandparents. … It takes a village all working together to get that message out, and you’ve got to hit lots of different levels.”
Though Hoel expects the shift in perception will take years, she says Pequot Tool is already seeing an increase in applicants for its high school student apprenticeship program. The apprenticeship allows students to gain firsthand experience in a manufacturing environment by working a few hours at the company each week during their junior and senior years. More than 50 percent of Pequot Tool’s apprentices return to the company for a full-time position upon graduation from high school or post-secondary school.
Similarly, Karen Jansen says the Trade Scholarship has attracted more summer apprentices to North Anoka Plumbing, a handful of whom receive full-time jobs after graduation.
Flaws believes Clow Stamping’s outreach efforts have sparked more interest among potential employees.
“When your presence is out there, more [potential employees] realize that you’re here. We have a very viable career here for people, and the students in the community see that,” Flaws says. “There is also personal satisfaction in knowing that you are educating the kids in the community.”
Ultimately, local students’ education and career choices will determine the companies’ success.
“I’d love to see our local technical college programs just filled up with young people that want to go into manufacturing careers. That would be great,” Hoel says.
Until then, they will continue to work one class, one student and one scholarship at a time.
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