Manufacturing leaders try to change perceptions

June 13, 2012

From “Manufacturing leaders try to change perceptions” — GRAND RAPIDS — Manufacturing is not a dirty word — nor is it an industry for the uneducated.

That is the message business leaders want to share with a new generation of Wisconsinites — a generation that increasingly chooses four-year degrees, said Jim Morgan, president of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Foundation, the state’s chamber of commerce.

“The high-paying, low-skilled jobs — those are the ones that have left, and, quite frankly, I don’t know that they’re coming back,” Morgan said Wednesday during a visit to Mid-State Technical College’s Wisconsin Rapids campus.

“At the end of the day, ground zero for this is right here in the technical colleges.”

The discussion came as part of a partnership between the state chamber and the Wisconsin Technical College System to address the shortage of skilled workers in manufacturing and highlighted some of the feedback the group got from a series of 54 listening sessions in Wisconsin with more than 300 manufacturers.

In order to boost interest in manufacturing jobs across the state, the foundation is developing a strategy aimed at resolving the shortage of skilled workers, including compiling a list of best practices, launching a public awareness campaign and assisting local chambers of commerce in addressing the issue, Morgan said.

“This is going to get solved community by community,” he said. “What you do in Wisconsin Rapids is going to look different than what happens in Eau Claire or Green Bay.”

One example of such a local effort is the Workforce Central program, a grass-roots initiative facilitated through Incourage Community Foundation that has developed a three-pronged approach to workforce development, said Rick Merdan, a facilitator for Workforce Central.

Among the initiative’s programs are those that help individuals overcome the barriers to getting a degree or even their high school diploma; provide training for people who have lost their jobs and need new skills to re-enter the manufacturing world; and incumbent workers who need to upgrade their skills to enhance their position in their respective industry, Merdan said.

“The misconception of manufacturing being ‘dirty, dumb and dangerous’ comes from all the mill shutdowns that we’ve had here,” he said. “We need to displace that.”

One of only four rural sites in the country with such a program, south Wood County stands as an example for how other communities can follow, said Al Javoroski, dean of MSTC’s Technical and Industrial Division.

“It’s about pooling our resources to make a more focused push toward educating everyone about what careers are available and what education is needed to get there,” Javoroski said. That education should start as early as the elementary or middle school level, he said.

Officials need to make an effort to publicize the work manufacturers are doing because the stories people are telling are at least five decades old, Morgan said.

“Until we get kids and parents and counselors in there to see it, how are we going to change that paradigm?” he said.

Steve Berlyn, general manager at Mariani Packing Co., a member of both the Workforce Central Funders Collaborative and its CEO Peer Council, said the cranberry processing industry has evolved dramatically during the past several years to the point where the company had to expand its Wisconsin Rapids plant.

“I think manufacturing as a whole is changing,” Berlyn said. “It’s high-tech.”

Thirty percent of the jobs in the state require a bachelor’s degree or more, while 70 percent require something more than a high school diploma, Morgan said.

“If you’re not growing something, making something or mining something, the rest of us are all kind of along for the ride,” he said.


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