Skilled Trades Educators & Employers: We Need to Be Better Partners

June 10, 2013

From “Skilled Trades Educators & Employers: We Need to be Better Partners” — At a workforce development meeting last week, manufacturing educators and employers from across the Midwest and elsewhere in the U.S. agreed that much greater collaboration between the private sector and teaching institutions is needed to fix the U.S. industrial labor skills gap.

About 35 community college and technical school educators and human resource managers of manufacturing companies, along with workforce development experts, met at the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International’s (FMA) T.E.A.M. Summit in Anoka, Minn., to tackle the multifaceted and complex manufacturing talent crisis. They concluded that foundational changes must be made in curriculum education in college and high schools, certification and credentialing programs, and internships and apprenticeships.

Moreover, the group discussed different ways to change negative public perceptions about manufacturing, stimulate younger generations into entering the sector, and create greater employee engagement, development, and retention at manufacturing businesses. But the biggest challenge, both teachers and employers acknowledged, is overcoming the disconnect that currently exists between the educational system and the private sector in preparing students with the skills they require to become effective workers.

Despite coming from different areas around the country, skilled trades instructors and program administrators lamented a similar lack of engagement by manufacturing businesses in their student development efforts. Years of under-coordination with employers have resulted in numerous situations where the graduates and would-be employees they produce do not match up with job competencies.

Larry Clark, who teaches welding and metal fabrication at Moraine Park Technical College, in Fond du Lac, Wis., said that while several local manufacturers are members of the school’s manufacturing program advisory committee, they meet with faculty just twice per year. “We need an engaged faculty working with employers,” he said.

Today’s shop floor skills in advanced manufacturing facilities can be highly specialized, but employers have not been defining them specifically enough to educators, according to Dave Stotelmyre, machine shop instructor at Kirkwood Community College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That problem is magnified because of the rapid pace of manufacturing technology advances. He said the school has had difficulties placing the right candidates into area manufacturers, as a result.

“Companies need to have some forethought and identify what their needs are,” Stotelmyre said. “When the [employees] are not what they expected, now the specifics start flowing out.” He said companies “need to be involved right up front” with schools, working together as partners in developing the right manufacturing employees.

“Manufacturers, in general, don’t think that educating their future workforce is their job,” said Pat Lee of the FMA.

Educators Larry Clark (left), of Moraine Park Technical College in Fond Du Lac, Wisc., talks shop with Dennis Ringgenberg (middle) and Dave Stotelmyre of Kirkwood Community College, of Cedar Rapids, Ia.

Larry Clark (left), of Moraine Park Technical College in Fond Du Lac, Wis., talks shop with Dennis Ringgenberg (middle) and Dave Stotelmyre (right), both from Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Credit: William Ng

“This problem has been around for a long time,” said John Calver, director of the Advanced Manufacturing Excellence Center at Thomas Nelson Community College, in Hampton, Va. “It was ignored because their immediate needs were still being met – until now.”

He equated talent development to a supply chain whose design, long-range planning, and execution require private-sector commitment. “Employers don’t see educators in the supply-chain light,” said Calver, who added that when businesses look to schools for people, they “expect to have it tomorrow.” He described those expectations as being “unrealistic.”

Clark of Moraine Park Technical College said that when manufacturers call the school, “they’re desperate.”

Manufacturers, likewise, have struggled with alignment issues with education institutions. In southwest Louisiana, Begneaud Manufacturing Inc., a precision sheet metal fabrication shop based in Lafayette, has had trouble finding workers skilled in TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding due partly to local schools teaching only stick (arc) welding. “There are seven welding programs and five machining programs in my area, but no TIG welding,” said Andree Begneaud, employee relations director and co-owner of the 55-employee company, who spoke on a panel at the FMA T.E.A.M. Summit.

The manufacturer therefore began internships that offer locally enrolled welding students opportunities to add TIG welding to their skill sets. “We are doing the TIG welding component of local education programs, where students spend three days a week at Begneaud,” she said. Yet in Louisiana, internships are not considered a part of the state’s educational system, but, still, they must be approved and sanctioned before they can be implemented.

Wilson Tool International, headquartered in White Bear Lake, Minn., is another business that had difficulties with schools. Its internship programs are aimed at nurturing high school students to become CNC machinists, as well as mechanical designers and mechanical maintenance operators. “We were looking to partner with high schools, but it was difficult,” said Amanda Kehoe, director of human resources at the company, which makes tooling systems for punch presses and press brakes, and punch and die components for sheet metal stamping equipment. “I couldn’t get [any school official] to talk to me. And schools didn’t allow kids out of their buildings.”

“Make friends with instructors, and bring schools to your company,” Laura Elsner, workforce development manager for DeWys Manufacturing, a machine shop and metal fabricator based in Marne, Mich., advised other manufacturers during a presentation at the FMA event. “You have to build the relationship, and work with educators, not against them. Get to know the right people at schools.”

Although DeWys initially began a 12-week educational curriculum and training course that was just internal for its own manufacturing operations, the 140-person company has struck partnerships with both area post-secondary educational institutions and high schools. It is now collaborating with Grand Valley State University, Ferris State University, and Grand Rapids Community College in the areas of weld engineering, manufacturing engineering, and machining. The company is also involved in Coopersville High School’s Manufacturing Engineering Partnership Program, and with Kenowa Hills High School on conducting hands-on manufacturing camps for teenagers.

That proactive approach ensures that manufacturing employers have a talent pipeline that possesses the particular skills they need, said Gabrielle Caputo, Americas product manager for the manufacturing and logistics markets for global staffing company Kelly Services, headquartered in Troy, Mich. A keynote speaker at the FMA meeting, Caputo, who has 15 years of experience in workforce development and talent acquisition, said to the summit’s participants, “Look at your internal talent and develop your own talent supply chain.”

The manufacturing labor pool is aging. Before 2018, 78.5 million baby boomers will have left the workforce, Caputo said, citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. At Wilson Tool, the average employee age is 45. “We have a very senior workforce,” Kehoe said. There is a sense of urgency now to make sure huge chunks of the labor pool are refilled. And that will drive greater cooperation between educators and employers, they expect.

“We have to get better at matching faculty teaching to real-world employer needs,” said Katherine Whelchel, a project manager for Bio-Link, a National Advanced Technological Education Center, part of the National Science Foundation.

That sentiment was echoed by Matthew Salo, biomedical market development manager and program advisor at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, in Coon Rapids, Minn., who said private-public partnerships must have a sense of “matching employer-needed outcomes with what the schools are capable of delivering.”

Jeff Stapel, human resources manager at Schickel Corp., a metal fabricator and machine shop in Bridgewater, Va., noted, “I want to focus on doing more for my people, exploring the new welding program at my local community college.” He added, “I appreciate having new contacts who can help me.”

“I know I need to get a good relationship going with my local technical college,” said Dan Bushman, human resources and safety manager for Northern Metal Fab Inc., in Baldwin, Wis. “I need to overcome the awkward formality dance we’re doing, and I know I need to take responsibility for making this happen.”


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