Marinette Marine struggles to attract young workers

June 18, 2012

From “Marinette Marine struggles to attract young workers” — Marinette – Career opportunities in the skilled trades are strong, but one of northern Wisconsin’s largest employers hasn’t been able to recruit more than a handful of recent high school graduates for some of the best-paying jobs in the region.

Marinette Marine Corp. said it is holding open 40 positions in its training program for welders and other shipyard jobs, hoping to attract recent high school graduates from the Marinette and Menominee, Mich., area.

The company has reached out to nine schools to find job candidates, but so far only seven recent graduates have applied for the training, which begins in July.

That’s an area where about half of the graduates go on to college, although it’s about 60% in Menominee – which is across the Menominee River from Marinette.

A typical employee at the shipyard can earn $30,000 to $40,000 a year. With overtime pay, some earn more than $60,000, according to Marinette Marine.

Yet, like many companies, it is struggling to persuade young people to enter the skilled trades, including welding, pipe fitting and electrical work.

To fill jobs, companies recruit each other’s employees, said Mark Kaiser, president of Lindquist Machine Corp. in Green Bay.

“If we don’t find enough talent, the fact is we are not going to be able to grow our businesses,” Kaiser said.

With 1,400 employees, Marinette Marine is immersed in U.S. Navy shipbuilding work that should last for years. That has resulted in the addition of thousands of jobs at the shipyard and 700 suppliers in 43 states, including more than 120 Wisconsin companies.

Each littoral combat ship takes about 40 months to build. The 10 ships under contract will keep the work going for nine to 12 years – longer, if Marinette is awarded additional ships in a new round of bids in 2016.

The jobs aren’t going to fizzle out any time soon. Right now, the future looks “pretty rosy for us,” Marinette Marine President and CEO Charles Goddard said.

“We can easily handle 100 or more hires out of high schools in a year,” Goddard added.

But many parents won’t encourage their children to enter the skilled trades. They’ve seen manufacturers cut jobs and wreak havoc in the lives of people who depended on that work.

“It’s a tough row to hoe because the bigger issue is with the parents,” Kaiser said. “When they were young, they probably worked in high-volume, repetitive factory jobs.” Those jobs have disappeared.

Training at the gates

Saturday marked the 70th anniversary of Marinette Marine’s founding. The company has had layoffs in the past involving hundreds of employees, but it has been one of the area’s strongest employers.

The company contacted area high schools last fall, telling school officials about its training program through Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay.

The training center is a mere 300 feet from the shipyard gates in Marinette. It will offer paid instruction in welding, ship fitting, pipe fitting and electrical work, along with on-the-job training that pays about $12 an hour.

In addition to work experience, students may earn credits at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College that can apply toward a two-year degree.

It’s the first time Marinette Marine has offered this opportunity to students, although it has provided training for hundreds of its regular employees and offers tuition assistance for employees pursuing a college degree.

The company has added 600 jobs in the past 12 months, largely for the Navy work, but for other projects as well. It has hired people from across the United States but still worries about attrition as older employees retire.

The average age of shipyard employees is 45. That must come down, Goddard said, so the company doesn’t face workforce shortages as a wave of employees heads into retirement in the not-too-distant future.

It’s also why Marinette Marine has reached out to area high schools to recruit young talent, Goddard said.

Marinette school officials did not return calls asking about the training program that was offered to their graduating seniors.

Thinking of the future

Erik Bergh, superintendent of the Menominee School District, said Marinette Marine was very aggressive, “in a good way,” about trying to provide opportunities to this year’s graduates.

“They are really encouraging students to see that there are many roads in life, and that working for them would be a great experience,” Bergh said. “Manufacturing has been a big part of our area ever since the timber industry went away. We have companies that have rebounded nicely from the recession and are now concerned about the availability of talent in terms of expansions and the aging workforce.”

Still, persuading students to enter the skilled trades hasn’t been easy. They are attracted to other careers, and the area has a low unemployment rate.

“There is no doubt it’s a quandary. We have spent an awful lot of time with this,” Bergh said.

Too many high school students don’t have a career plan or interest in college, said Jim Golembeski, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board in Green Bay.

“The top kids are very motivated, and they’re going to college or tech school. But there’s a whole group of kids, and I would say it’s a pretty large group, who are not thinking about what happens after high school,” Golembeski said.

“I see it over and over again. Those are the kids who could really benefit from something like the Marinette training,” he added.

Justin Plansky of Menominee, Mich., is one of the seven applicants for the company’s training. He graduated from high school earlier this month and works as a dishwasher at Applejacks restaurant.

Plansky said he was the only one in his graduating class who took four years of mechanical shop classes. He preferred the hands-on instruction, with hot metal and sparks flying, over classroom lectures.

“Some people think shop classes are boring, but they’re really not,” Plansky said. He’s pursuing a career as a welder but said he might switch gears someday and become a high school metal-shop teacher.

Homegrown talent

Plansky is the type of student Marinette Marine wants. He has welding experience, is mechanically oriented and doesn’t want to leave the area.

The company may widen its search for recent graduates if it can’t fill training positions locally, but prefers homegrown talent.

“This is a very rural area, which is why we cast the net to approximately nine schools,” said Phillip Henslee, a Marinette Marine human resources manager and the company’s vocational outreach coordinator.

Henslee came to Marinette from the semiconductor industry.

Given the area’s shipbuilding heritage, he was surprised at how difficult it was to find skilled-trade recruits.

“I was very amazed at how much of a downturn the trades have taken over the last several decades,” he said.

This fall, the company will reach out to high school juniors, trying to get them interested in the training before their senior year, when many students already have made post-graduation plans.

Henslee remains optimistic, saying the program will build on its success over time.

“This is a challenge,” he said. “But it’s a winnable challenge.”


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