Overcoming the skilled labor shortage

The FABRICATOR July 2001
May 15, 2001
By: Kevin Cole

The labor force of tomorrow needs to embrace manufacturing today if the industry is going to attract and keep the workers it needs in the future.

The booming business climate manufacturers experienced in the '90s increased the number of jobs available to skilled workers and lowered the unemployment rate. This, along with the dirty, sweaty work image that has been, perhaps erroneously, attached to engineering has dealt a blow to recruiting in the field of metal fabrication. This, coupled with pressure from parents and educators to steer students toward white-collar careers, has left many metal fabrication businesses in dire need of skilled labor.

How often are managers in the manufacturing field reminded that there is a shortage of the type of workers they need? Many would say often. But some, such as the manufacturing community in central Illinois, is trying to do something about it.

Even in the midst of an economic slowdown that has hit the manufacturing industry particularly hard (and driven the unemployment rate to a 20-month high of 4.3 percent in March, according to the federal government) metal fabricators still are searching for employees. While the work forces for metal fabricators and nonmanufacturing-related industries alike have been cut, experts have said the majority of these cuts have been in management and unskilled labor areas.

Overcoming an Image Problem

In March, manufacturing companies in and around Galesburg, Illinois, put together a program they hope will help. Funded largely by the West Central Illinois Education to Careers (ETC) Partnership and working together with the Center for Manufacturing Excellence (CME), Carl Sandburg College, The Rotary Club, and area school districts, these manufacturers got together to bring in almost 1,000 youths to hear about and get a feel for careers in manufacturing. The program, called Career Exploration in Manufacturing, brought pupils from junior highs and high schools in central Illinois to the CME, where they received a taste of manufacturing that area fabrication businesses hope was a pleasant one.

Companies such as Butler Manufacturing, Maytag, Lincoln Electric, Alexis Fire Equipment, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, and Midstate Manufacturing set up multistation demonstrations in which pupils could hear about the positives of manufacturing and even try their hand at such things as gas metal arc welding (GMAW), operating a press brake, maneuvering a welding robot, and establishing a simple electric circuit. Company representatives led the youths from station to station, where they not only got an opportunity to perform some common fabrication processes, but also heard about the skills needed and rewards earned by professionals in the manufacturing world.

But changing the minds of the students was not the only goal. Many educators were exposed to the manufacturing environment for the first time. The challenge is to open the minds of not only the pupils, but also the teachers, explained Donald Crist, president of Carl Sandburg College.

Curtis Pitman, member of the board of directors of the CME and owner of Midstate Manufacturing in Galesburg, agreed, pointing out how important it is for educators to see the changes in factories that have taken place over the years.

Pitman said, "Kids think of grease and grime when they hear the word 'factory,' but it's just not true." He explained he, like most others in the metal fabrication field, has a hard time finding workers with the skills his company needs. He said parents and teachers tend to glorify such occupations as doctors, lawyers, or accountants, but rarely urge their children to go into manufacturing.

"Teachers and students don't realize that machinists and technicians make very good money," he said. "In the next 20 years, we're going to see things that we never dreamed of, and we're going to have to keep up with it or the world will pass us by."

And Pitman is not alone; nearly every business attending the expo said it faced similar problems.

Craig Clary of Butler Manufacturing, a national prefabricated building manufacturer that has a large facility in Galesburg, said the manufacturing world isn't all sweat and that computer skills and an understanding of higher mathematics are becoming more and more important. He said his company is always looking for skilled labor and is forced to recruit from all over the country—and world—to get the people it needs.

The Long Run

While all of the participants in the Career Exploration in Manufacturing program admit that they are not likely to see immediate results, they were confident that the first step in overcoming their problems was to change the image of their industry in the minds of tomorrow's workers.

Jeff Morris, chairman of the board of directors of the CME and president of Alexis Fire Equipment, said he feels this program will pay off in the long run. He said such efforts would "plant the seeds" that he hopes will be harvested in the future.

"Parents, teachers, and kids need to feel it's OK to go into vocational fields, not just college. And those who do go to college need to know that manufacturing is a good area to get into," he explained.

The Short Term

Although the downturn in the economy has decreased some companies' need for employees, when asked about the softer economy, none of the company representatives in attendance at the program complained of a work shortage. On the contrary, several said their log of back orders is keeping them quite busy, and many said they would bend over backwards to retain their experienced employees. Others said they are being forced either to pay for training or train new employees themselves.

Craig Cozadd of Heat & Control, a manufacturing facility in central Illinois, said his company is forced to spend months training and mentoring workers because finding people with the necessary skills is far too difficult. "We've experienced a lot of growth over the last decade," he said. "We are constantly facing the need to do more work with fewer people."

Doug Gau, product manager for Alexis Fire Equipment, said his company always looks for prospective employees with strong technology backgrounds and computer skills, but often ends up providing additional training at the company's expense.

In addition to the Career Exploration in Manufacturing program, manufacturers in the area have organized a manufacturing summer camp to try to meet shorter-term work needs. In this program, students close to high school graduation apply and interview for a limited number of internshiplike summer positions in manufacturing settings. According to several of the attendees, some of the students actually return to work with the companies they trained with.

Although there are few definite answers, metal fabricators are starting to take a proactive stance that they will ultimately benefit from. And, as more companies become involved in programs like these, relief should come sooner rather than later.

Kevin Cole

Contributing Writer

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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