Source: Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International

Despite an uncertain economy, many manufacturers across the country are reporting a lack of welders, fabricators, laser operators, electricians, press brake operators, machinists and a host of other skilled labor positions. As the economy begins to rebound and baby boomers begin to retire, this shortage is expected to worsen. The National Association of Manufacturers projects that by 2020 some 10 million skilled workers will be needed.

For manufacturers, recruiting employees to fill skilled jobs is more than a vexing problem. It may literally become a matter of business survival for many of these companies in the next decade. Thus, developing a company strategy to recruit future employees is crucial to attract the next generation of workers and succeed in the global marketplace.

The Apprenticeship and Internship

One method to recruit employees is a concept employers have used for centuries-the apprenticeship-and its 20th century cousin, the internship. Their value has never been so significant and appreciated; young people are exposed to the exciting opportunities in manufacturing while companies have a chance to recruit, evaluate and hire needed employees.

Students who intern learn valuable skills throughout the year and oftentimes become full-time employees at these companies after graduation. To further meet the demand for skilled labor, some employers use apprenticeships as a means of encouraging prospective young employees to enter the field. Others issue signing bonuses and incentives to skilled workers who have been trained in apprenticeship programs.

Begneaud Manufacturing (Lafayette, LA), a precision sheet metal job shop, offers an in-house apprenticeship program that introduces employees to every metalworking process at the company on a rotating basis. Currently, four employees are involved in an apprenticeship and partner with an experienced operator or skilled craftsmen mentor for three months at each specific practice.

The initiative gives individuals the opportunity to experience all of the processes at a company and instills a well-rounded knowledge of the operation. It helps identify the area in which they excel so they can be guided in that direction and then, ultimately, be offered a position.

Forming Educational Alliances

Filling the increasing workforce gap in the manufacturing sector also can be accomplished by fostering educational alliances with local schools, universities and technical colleges. Companies that build relationships with schools offering programs in their industry can better recruit students from trade-specific degree programs.

Firms should consider donating manufacturing equipment to the local trade school so that students are trained to use its systems. These students can then be more easily recruited to fill a needed position. This often can happen as a result of a collaborative partnership between a local manufacturer and the machine tool company whose equipment they use.

If the machine tool company donates a piece of equipment for a school’s use, it becomes a demonstration machine they can use with potential new customers. In some cases the donation can be a tax-deductible charitable contribution. At the same time, that machine tool company is helping its customer-the local manufacturer-build a more secure future through access to a better trained workforce.

Executives can benefit by joining the advisory committees at local universities and technical trade schools to help craft course content and assist in forming the knowledge base of future graduates. This further ensures that students are learning the specific skills sought from them upon graduation. Schools understand that the programs they provide must meet the needs of local employers and will welcome such volunteer interest.

Another option is to align with the local high schools. Education priorities today rarely position manufacturing as a preferred career choice; it is important to make high school counselors and principals realize that manufacturing is a viable option for a number of students.

Consider having someone on your staff serve as a recruiter to promote specifically to high school students the possible benefits of manufacturing career alternatives to college. Offer them up as a speaker for school career days to talk about the fun, the challenges and the sophistication of manufacturing work, such as cutting steel with laser lights, plasma cutting, laser welding, use of robotics, touch screen controllers and running the most technologically advanced equipment in the world.

Invite teachers, counselors, principals and others in the area to visit your manufacturing facility as a teacher institute day activity. You will find that most of the educators have had little or no personal experience with manufacturing. The most they know may be what they read in a high school textbook about the industrial revolution. Demonstrate to them the realities of today’s sophisticated manufacturing plant and emphasize the types of skills a new worker needs to bring to that environment, thereby helping them to create classroom learning experiences in math, science and even English classes that matter to employers.

Partnerships between education and industry are very beneficial in helping to meet manufacturers’ ever-increasing demands for new skills and knowledge and improve labor prospects.

Building Partnerships

In addition to educational alliances, manufacturers should consider collaborating with other businesses, non-profits and foundations, as well as state and local economic development programs to expand opportunities and create more awareness about manufacturing jobs.

For Bob Burgin, plant manager with Midwest Metal Products, a precision metal fabrication company based in Cedar Rapids, IA, finding qualified labor to work at his facility was a relentless, year-round struggle.

Searching for a solution, Midwest Metal Products approached Phil Thomas, dean of industrial technology at the local technical school, Kirkwood Community College (Cedar Rapids, IA). They decided it would be advantageous to pull together a number of local companies and convene a group to advise and discuss the workforce shortage in the region and brainstorm ways to recruit young adults.

At the meeting, it was decided to use a two-pronged approach to establish a precision sheet metal fabrication program at Kirkwood with the goal of attracting, recruiting and training workers.

The first component consisted of developing a short-term press brake training program through the school’s Continuing Education program. The second was the establishment of a two-year associate of applied science degree.

Funding for the program was another essential component, as this would be vital in launching the program and securing the necessary machinery to complete the fabrication lab. Kirkwood administrators first applied for a U.S. Department of Labor grant. However, despite an initial positive response, it did not get approved.

School officials then decided to use the Grow Value Iowa Funds, a grant created by the Iowa Department of Economic Development. The initiative is a 10-year economic advancement program designed to transform Iowa’s economy by creating high quality jobs through business development and expansion across the state. Through this grant, the school was able to fund both the Continuing Education and credit side initiatives.

Armed with funding, officials began identifying the fabricating machinery necessary to build a state-of-the-art lab. Though Kirkwood’s industrial department had machines to teach welding and machining, the school lacked precision sheet metal fabrication machines such as a water jet, brake press or turret press. To fill the gap, several fabricating industry manufacturers donated equipment to get the program up and running.

The training program at Kirkwood is an example of the power of partnerships. The program is making its mark by meeting the important short-term needs of local manufacturers through apprenticeship and real-time training.

Employee Mentoring Programs

Developing and implementing a company mentoring program is another method to gain access to skilled, experienced workers. This type of program consists of a more seasoned worker mentoring a younger employee and helps companies fill in the spaces from retiring employees.

Consider pairing long-term skilled employees with younger workers to share technical knowledge and wisdom through years of experience. Through this initiative, the younger employee gains a wealth of knowledge and can more quickly advance at the company.

It is a win-win for all parties involved. The seasoned worker will feel their talents are recognized and essential, while the mentored employee will feel like the company cares about his future.

Collaboration is Key

For manufacturers across the country, finding, training and retaining people to fill skilled manufacturing jobs will be a matter of business survival. Partnerships on a local and regional level can help solve the critical labor shortage by training tomorrow’s workforce and introducing young people to manufacturing jobs.Q

Tech Tips

There are a variety of ways to recruit the estimated 10 million skilled workers that will be needed by 2020 including:

  • Apprenticeships and internships
  • Educational alliances
  • Partnerships
  • Employee mentoring programs