This article appeared in the December 2020 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.
For years, manufacturing has fought against an unfair stigma surrounding the skilled trades. For those educational, staffing and professional development institutions that supply the talent pipeline in Michigan, efforts are underway to attract new talent by educating both students and parents that modern manufacturing positions are well-paying, sustainable and technology-driven.
Keeping the younger generation interested in career pathways within manufacturing relies heavily on regional partnerships and innovative programming, according to Dr. Bill Pink, president of Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC).
“Being in West Michigan, our work with manufacturing partners is vital,” says Dr. Pink.
GRCC offers a wide variety of skilled trade and applied science programs and has the largest welding lab in the state. Their School of Workforce Development features a variety of disciplines within manufacturing and the applied technology fields including plastics-polymers engineering, welding technology, tooling and manufacturing technology, HVAC and industrial maintenance.
Dr. Pink says the college has helped create 16,000 non-credit apprenticeships among their 250 manufacturing partners in West Michigan alone.
“When the kids think about their parents being in manufacturing, they left home clean and they came home dirty. That’s the perception,” says Dr. Pink. “We’re working with kids as young as middle school to educate them. When we bring them on campus, we take them to the machining lab and it’s as clean as any hospital.”
Starting that education and cultivation process at a younger age has been a key component for Jenny Geno, Executive Director of Career and Technical Education (CTE) at the Saginaw Intermediate School District (ISD). Their CTE program is only a few years old but they have already seen a highly positive response from the community.
“Our community really rallied in order to fill these talent gaps,” says Geno. “We’ve been having these talent conversations for a long time; the parents and students showed up in droves. All of our local school districts signed on to be partners as well.”
Geno says they focus recruiting efforts on high school, and even middle school students, but they start the education process at elementary school.
“In order to attract the younger generation, you really have to paint manufacturing as a career pathway and not just a job once you graduate high school,” says Geno.
Saginaw ISD is one of twelve Michigan schools involved in PRIME® (Partnership Response In Manufacturing Education) a partnership between the SME Education Foundation and MMA. The program provides custom training, equipment and curriculum for students and teachers and is directly advised by manufacturing companies and professionals in the field. The MMA began expanding PRIME® in Michigan upon recognizing the staggering talent gap projected for statewide manufacturers. It’s estimated there will be some 2.5 million unfilled manufacturing positions by 2025.
Gratiot-Isabella Regional Education Service District (RESD) is another PRIME® school. Douglas Bush, Director of the Career and Technical Center, understands the necessity of those manufacturing partnerships. Gratiot-Isabella is based in Ithaca but serves nine districts and one charter school spread throughout central Michigan. By utilizing PRIME® curriculum, they have been able to keep enrollment steady, thereby supporting the regional talent pipeline.
Through the PRIME® partnership, they were able to acquire precision measurement carts built by Snap-on which are valued at $72,000. Bush said the carts are used for technical training that can be applied to a variety of skilled trade fields and are linked to NC3 certification which is highly valued by manufacturing employers.
“The precision carts give our students training with micrometers and things for quality control that are used all the time in the field,” says Bush. “Now our students are able to start their job training or apprenticeship and they can show that they have this skill set. It saves the employer time and money on training.”
There is also a coordinated public relations effort centered around promoting manufacturing careers, says Tim Rigling, CTE Director for the Wexford Missaukee Career Tech Center located in Cadillac. He says having that stigma impacts talent acquisition in skilled trades and industrial arts.
“We still have parents hesitant to send their kids to a manufacturing program,” says Rigling. “We have to show them the opportunities and that manufacturing is alive and well.”
Retaining Talent a Priority for Manufacturers
Cultivating and acquiring talent is just the first step. Modern manufacturers also have to show opportunities for professional development, says Jeremy Bockelman, Executive Director and Senior Business Advisor for the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (The Center). Bockelman and The Center help their manufacturing clients in skills and talent development while also offering a wide variety of classes in cyber security, business development, environmental, food industry, supply chain and more. Providing those programs and opportunities to “upskill” have a direct impact on retaining employees.
“What we work on with our clients is how do we provide additional tools to help keep employees and keep them engaged. For instance, our supervisor skills course has been extremely popular,” says Bockelman, MMA’s 2018 MFG Emerging Leader.
With locations in Plymouth, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Traverse City and Marquette, The Center is a major proponent of Industry 4.0, described as the fourth industrial revolution. Industry 4.0 is largely based on utilizing advanced technology, data, machine learning and automation. Bockelman says it’s imperative that manufacturers show prospective employees they are leading through technology, and that industrial arts has undergone a significant evolution since 2008-2009. One example Bockelman gives is using virtual or augmented reality to train CNC operators, which is available at The Center’s Industry 4.0 labs.
“That is what’s going to entice the future generation of workers,” says Bockelman.
Utilizing technology and career advancement will hopefully continue to have an impact on filling the needs of manufacturers in Michigan. For Janis Petrini, Owner and Operator of Express Employment Professionals, she knows full well that finding and keeping talent is the No. 1 challenge facing her manufacturing clients.
“Right now, there are over 15,000 unfilled manufacturing positions. Manufacturers need talent desperately,” says Petrini.
The COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to being an international health crisis, has had a damaging effect on manufacturers who are trying to hire and retain their incumbent workforce. Petrini says many workers are at home and fearful to return to work. Conversely, wages have increased across the board in manufacturing fields and many companies have already proven they can provide safe working environments.
Having been in business for over 25 years, Petrini understands that staffing is essentially a numbers game. Since 2008, the state has experienced a significant drop in population and certain areas such as Detroit have been hit particularly hard with the post-recession exodus. She says that recently they’re seeing people return to Michigan and populations start to slowly increase.
Petrini hopes that these are all positive signs for manufacturers going forward.
“We have been turning the conversation around for the students and their parents,” Petrini says. “(Manufacturing) is actually a very sustainable career and it’s a great career choice to support your family.”