WisBusiness: State looks to address skills mismatch in manufacturing industry

By Arthur Thomas

For WisBusiness.com

As the candidates in the gubernatorial recall election spar over how best to measure job growth, manufacturers in the state are trying to find employees with the skill-sets to match rapidly advancing technology.

“We’ve turned work away because we didn’t have enough of the right people,” said Mary Isbister, president of GenMet, a metal fabrication company in Mequon.

The million-dollar question facing manufacturers and educators in Wisconsin right now is how to address the mismatch between worker skills and job openings. At the heart of the issue is how to develop a workforce with the skills that manufacturers need in the 21st century.

The problem isn’t one that is unique to Wisconsin, but failing to solve it before other states could have huge consequences. According to Buckley Brinkman, executive director of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, the number one issue for companies that are considering relocation is the supply of labor.

“The state that solves that issue first has a huge leg up,” Brinkman said.

Brinkman said the number of jobs available for skilled workers is hard to determine because it isn’t aggregated anywhere. He added that nationally there may be between 160,000 and 600,000 jobs available in skilled manufacturing.

Part of the problem is a transition to a more technologically advanced way of manufacturing.

“The way that we have been able to drive production in this country is phenomenal,” Brinkman said.

But that increase in production has partially resulted in the problems faced by manufacturers today. Isbister says things have changed dramatically in the last decade or so.

She said 13 years ago, GenMet had one machine involving a laser and a paper-based blueprint system. Today, Isbister said GenMet has three laser machines and a completely computer-based blueprint system.

“It was much less complex than it is today,” Isbister said.

As an example, Isbister said to operate a laser-cutting machine on GenMet’s floor, a person would have to be able to understand different types of metals, how to set up software, tune the laser, inspect pieces after they were cut, and troubleshoot potential problems with the machine.

“There’s an awful lot that goes in to it,” Isbister said. “It’s not something you can walk out of high school and do.”

Isbister said it is hard to find job seekers with the skills needed to operate GenMet’s equipment. She said GenMet has begun bringing in candidates and training them to figure out where they would best fit in the company. The upside, according to Isbister, is that the employees who complete the training are well-versed in GenMet’s practices. However, the downside is training one employee can take between six months and a year.

According to Isbister, there are two factors that prevent her company from taking on more work. The first is the acute shortage of workers with the right skills available today. The second is a diminishing workforce with workers retiring over the next five to 10 years. Isbister estimated that 20 percent or more of the workforce will need to be replaced over that time.

Isbister said in her view there are three main factors to addressing the workforce issue, although she said there are probably at least 100 other ideas for how to do it. She said the solution will involve education, leveraging the programs that exist, and promoting a better understanding of manufacturing.

The biggest and most complex factor is education, according to Isbister. She added figuring out the educational aspects could have the biggest impact on the workforce paradox.

Isbister said she has seen a variety of skill levels in the graduates coming from the state’s technical colleges.

“They’re not all equally capable,” Isbister said of tech school graduates.

She said she would like to see the establishment of standards in areas like welding, so that all graduates will have a basic level of proficiency. She added that technical schools’ curriculum don’t always match what manufacturers want.

“In my experience, they are not all aligned with what industry needs,” Isbister said, adding that it would be “nirvana if all of the technical colleges shared curriculum.”

Morna Foy, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Technical College System, says the technical college system tries hard to connect with the needs of industry.

“Every one of our 300 programs has an advisory committee,” Foy said.

She said these committees are made up of employers from the area around a particular school. All ongoing programs are guided by the recommendations of the committees, according to Foy. She added that before a new program is started there has to be a demonstrated need for the skills that will be produced. Finally, Foy said WCTS routinely discontinues programs and makes changes based on the recommendations of advisory committees.

Foy said that one of Wisconsin’s strengths as a manufacturing state is that there are a lot of smaller employers. As a result, the state’s economy isn’t tied up with one or two large companies. She added that these smaller companies have a lot of distinct needs. For example, Foy said there are at least 13 different kinds of welders that manufacturers might need. This variety means it is important for the technical college system to pay attention to the diversity of local economies. At the same time, Foy added that companies should engage with the educational system to make sure that their skill needs are known.

“It’s really important for all of us to keep that communication line going,” Foy said.

Manufacturers have also said they need to do more to attract people to careers in their industry.

“I think we have a lot of that hangover where we have sold the idea that a four-year degree is how you get ahead,” WMEP’s Brinkman said.

Former Bucyrus CEO Tim Sullivan said at a recent state manufacturing onference that a philosophical shift to an all college-preparatory K-12 system in the 1980s has disenfranchised at least two generations of students.

“The students in MPS in Milwaukee, if they haven’t gotten rock-solid reading skills, math skills, by the time they graduate eighth grade and go into high school and their only choice is college-preparatory courses, kids are smart, by their sophomore year they say ‘There’s no way I’m getting to college, might as will quit now’ and they do. That’s been happening for many years,” Sullivan said.

Isbister said the industry needs to make sure guidance counselors, teachers, and parents all understand what is available in manufacturing.

“People want to call it branding, creating that image, I think its about educating people,” she said.

Foy expressed a similar sentiment, noting that some may shy away from manufacturing if they, or someone in their family, had lost work because of a mass layoff.

“Manufacturers, for lots of unfortunate reasons, they are are battling lots of negative perceptions of their industry as a career choice,” Foy said. “Advanced manufacturing is pretty high-tech these days.”

She also pointed to WCTS’s Graduate Follow-up Report as evidence that manufacturing can provide high-paying jobs within six months of graduation. For example, there were 211 graduates of the one-year welding program who were employed according to the survey. Eight-four percent of them were employed in their field, with a median salary of $35,149.

“If you look at the statistics, there’s such a wage premium on manufacturing,” Brinkman said.

For example, in 2010, the most recent year with yearly data available, manufacturing accounted for roughly 15 percent of total non-farm employment in the state, according to data on the Department of Workforce Development’s website. In the same year, manufacturing accounted for roughly 20 percent of total wages. In contrast, the leisure and hospitality sector accounted for about 9 percent of non-farm employment, but just over 3 percent of total wages.

Isbister said there are a lot of stakeholders involved in solving the workforce dilemma, including entities at the federal and state level, industry, job seekers, and educators. She added that workforce development is not really an issue of money.

“I am just floored at the amount of money there is for workforce,” she said.

Isbister added that it might be worth considering driving the workforce development system more from the side of industry. She said right now solutions are being driven by the public sector.

“They’re well-intentioned, but they’re not best placed to determine what industry needs,” she said.

Brinkman said finding a solution is “going to take many different things.”

“This is a much more complicated issue than it looks the surface,” he added.