NWTC trying to meet employer needs for skilled workers

December 9, 2013

From postcrescent.com: “Workers needed, but manufacturing healthy in region” – There is a lot of good manufacturing news in Northeastern Wisconsin, but long-term challenges remain.

Manufacturing companies report they are healthy, modernizing and expecting growth in sales in 2014. They also continue to struggle to find qualified workers, a problem that will remain critical as baby boomers retire and employers add new machines that require better-trained operators.

Those are the findings of the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance’s 2014 Manufacturing Vitality Index, released Friday during the annual NEW North Summit in Ashwaubenon.

Fifty-one percent of the surveyed companies reported increased sales in 2013 and 66 percent are expecting more increases next year. Fifty percent are planning plant modernization, as was the case last year, and three out of four expect to hire. But there’s the rub. Sixty percent report having difficulty finding qualified workers.

“The skills shortage hasn’t changed a dramatic amount year to year,” said Scott Kettler, general manager of Fox Cities manufacturing sites for Plexus Corp. and incoming president of the Manufacturing Alliance. “We see people are hiring and we have that growth. What the index says to me is we are not out-pacing our growth.”

The five most difficult-to-fill positions include machinist/CNC machinist, machine operator, truck driver, team assembler and engineering technician. Welders remain in the top 10, though progress has been made in this region in supplying them.

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay is turning out 140 welding graduates a year, up from a handful five years ago. It also will train 100 CNC graduates this year and hopes to increase that to 130 next year, said Mark Weber, dean of training and engineering technologies at NWTC.

The Manufacturing Alliance was formed to get educators, students and parents thinking differently about manufacturing.

“I think that the tide has turned,” Weber said. “I’ve seen that in a relatively short time in the discussions I’ve had with K-12s. Before, you couldn’t get them to talk about manufacturing. Now they are calling us to talk about manufacturing.”

Manufacturing accounts for 23 percent of Northeastern Wisconsin’s jobs, and Wisconsin ranks second in the nation in with 19 percent of jobs in manufacturing.

Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s “Industrial Cities Initiative” called Green Bay a “resurgent city.” It said the region had four areas that predict economic strength: leadership, regionalism, workforce development and economic development finance.

But the alliance report says long-term demographics are not favorable. Some companies are losing 10 percent or more of their workforce annually to retirement and more people turn 65 each year than turn 18.

A key to mitigating the problem is to get more people interested in manufacturing, Kettler said.

“We have to solve our own problem. We have to continue to work with the education system,” he said. “I want to continue to focus on working with our manufacturers to continue to get involved. Our focus needs to be on that 8-12 (grade) range and we need to turn parents’ minds around that manufacturing is a viable career.”

Many efforts are underway. Some companies are working directly with local high schools, such as Ariens Co. in Brillion and Precision Machine in Algoma. Others are sending workers into classrooms to talk about manufacturing, and NWTC, in collaboration with the Bay Area Workforce Development Board, is sending a classroom — it’s mobile CNC lab — to the students.

“It’s no one thing that’s helping. It’s all of those things; working with high schools, working with manufacturers themselves,” Weber said.

Kettler said companies are taking workers with lesser skills and trying to grow them internally.

“It’s slower and more expensive and it’s not hiring for the future as much,” he said.

The good news, though, shouldn’t be overlooked, he said. Ninety-two percent of companies said they expect to be healthier next year. Half are planning modernization projects in 2014, compared to 46 percent last year and 36 percent in 2012.

“We are seeing companies invest,” he said.

The survey was based on the telephone responses of 111 companies with $3 million or more in annual revenue and 25 or more employees. It had a 28 percent response rate and 95 percent level of confidence. It was conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Business Success Center.



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