Manufacturers’ Moan – part 1: “Need More Skilled Workers!”

At the Great Lakes Trade Adjustment Assistance Center, we often hear from small and medium-sized manufacturers about the problem of finding and keeping skilled workers. It’s an ironic complaint in our states – Michigan, Ohio and Indiana – which have the nation’s highest unemployment rates. With so many looking for work, it seems like it should be easier for manufacturers to fill their ranks. So where’s the disconnect?

At least part of the problem appears to be that the tradition of apprenticeships has nearly been lost.  Manufacturers themselves used to be the ones to run and pay for apprenticeships, at least in part. So on the one hand, it’s easy to shake a finger at manufacturers and say they created their own problem by discontinuing programs that would train the workers they need. But it’s more complex than that. Manufacturers have been forced by foreign competition, rapidly changing technology, consolidation in their industry and other heavy pressures, to sacrifice long term goals to achieve short term ones. Apprenticeships are just one of many other things, like bonuses, fully funded health care plans and back-up inventories, that manufacturing firms still surviving today have gradually had to let go.

Now, however, there is broadening recognition in industry that this is a critical problem, and we’re seeing some promising and innovative solutions.

One example is The Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative (AMTEC), a consortium of 23 community colleges and 21 industry partners from Ohio, with Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky contributing also. The group has developed a general maintenance curriculum for the automotive industry that has the potential to also be utilized in other advanced manufacturing job sectors. Schools such as Cuyahoga Community College and Ivy Tech are educational partners, and Toyota, Ford and GM all participate on the industry side.

The whole idea came about in 2004 as an idea among community college leaders from the four states, who through conversations with leaders in automotive, had recognized a looming crisis in the area of maintenance for large, advanced automotive assembly lines. The current workforce was aging. The skills needed to repair today’s mechanical-robotic machines are numerous, complex and definitely need to be learned over time. In 2009, the group received a five-year $5.5 million NSF grant.

Now AMTEC graduates dozens of students every year with the skills to work on modern maintenance programs. Their certificates give them credibility and employers reassurance that they’re making the right hire.

In each state, various initiatives are being funded.  For example, in southeast Michigan, there’s “Right Skills Now for Manufacturing“, a collaboration between Wayne County Community College, the Manufacturing Institute, the Michigan Manufacturers Association (MMA) and the National Institute for Metal Working skills (NIMS).

In southwest Michigan, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) recentlyannounced nearly $800,000 in grant money going to 11 companies across 10 counties for skill upgrades of 1,525 workers.  In Jackson county, Michigan (south central Michigan), they’re thinking way ahead by implementing manufacturing prep programs for kids as young as kindergarten! The Academy for Manufacturing Careers not only has “Engineering is Elementary” for kids grades K – 6, there’s also a thriving summer camp called “Machining U” for grades 7 -9, and “Hot Rod U” for grades 9 – 12.

In our next blog (to be posted in 2 weeks), we’ll share an example of a machine shop manufacturer in Mooresville, IN that has been a trailblazer in providing apprenticeships for over 20 years — Overton Industries.

Question: what programs have you heard of in your state, that are helping to train tomorrow’s skilled manufacturing workers?