Get with the program

February 7, 2008
By: Vicki Bell

Have you ever noticed how things run in cycles? Feast or famine? Drought or flood? No phone calls, or one call after another? I telecommute, and days go by that my work phone doesn't ring at all. On those days, all communication transpires electronically. This is not one of those days.

Among the many unexpected calls today was one from a business owner in Ohio who has an idea. He wants to start a program to train industrial workers. The idea came to this gentleman as he drove around and kept seeing signs seeking CNC operators. He feels that most trade programs now are geared toward training people to work in the HVAC field and not in manufacturing. He thinks there's a need for and money to be made training skilled labor. I know the former to be true; can't speak for the latter.

Unless you've spent the last decade under a rocky outcrop in the Gobi Desert, you know all about the skilled labor shortage. It's here and will only get worse before it gets better, as more and more baby boomers retire.

The Des Moines Register ran an article in January addressing the labor shortage in Iowa. The article said, "From welders to mechanics, travel agents to dental hygienists, U.S. workers trained with specific skills will be harder to find as baby boomers retire, studies show. The trend will likely be more pronounced in Iowa and other states with aging populations."

As the article stated, "The situation is not new, and it typically arises before and after major U.S. economic shifts.

"Technical education in America can be traced to colonial apprenticeships —except then, the emphasis was reversed. The first education law passed in America specifically required masters to teach apprentices academic as well as vocational skills. The topic was hot again in the early 1900s, when the country struggled to meet labor needs as the economy shifted from agriculture to industry.

"After decades of education reform aimed mostly at better preparing kids for college, 'there is increasing concern that the United States is not adequately preparing a growing pool of new workers ... for productive, successful roles in the work force,' according to Howard Gordon's The History and Growth of Vocational Education in America, written in 2002.

"A similar sentiment drove education reform in China in the early 1990s, with an intense emphasis placed on job training in schools. In 2001, the government counted 17,770 vocational high schools and specialized skill schools.

"The number of U.S. high school and college students in career and technical classes rose, too, to 15 million in 2003-04 from about 9 million four years earlier. In Iowa, the number grew to 206,896 in 2006, up from 149,585 four years earlier.

"But that doesn't necessarily mean there are more carpenters and auto mechanics in the work force. The definition of career and technical education has evolved to include even business management and education jobs, according to the Iowa Department of Education."

The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International (FMA) has embraced combating the skilled labor shortage as its cause. Commenting on the decision to take on the shortage, Pat Lee, FMA public relations director, said, "Every survey we've done in more than a year indicates that companies in our industry find the shortage of skilled employees to be one of their three biggest stumbling blocks. The general media seems to be focusing on how many manufacturing jobs are going overseas, but not telling the part of the story about how hard it is to hire the skilled workers that are needed here.

"We've adopted this cause for two reasons. First, as an association representing an entire industry, we hope to have an impact by getting the whole story out to a broader audience. Our member and prospective member companies have told us that they think this is an issue that their association should address and influence. Second, we offer numerous programs and have engaged in many activities to try to solve the problem of an under-prepared workforce. We have the ability to look both long- and short-term, while individual companies often have to focus on their most immediate needs and hope that the future resolves itself."

FMA has published a white paper that addresses the labor shortage and offers suggestions of ways entities can come together to help solve the problem. An example of one such initiative can be found in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Midwest Metal Products' plant manager Joe Chiaramonte has found finding qualified labor a relentless, year-round struggle in Cedar Rapids. The 140-person shop operates three shifts that manufacture products utilizing laser cutting, punching, bending, welding, and painting.

"We've struggled for years to encourage more people to enter the manufacturing field and to employ more skilled workers at our plant, but we've had little success in getting the help we need," said Chiaramonte.

Searching for a solution, Chiaramonte approached Phil Thomas, dean of industrial technology at Kirkwood Community College, to explain his dilemma. Thomas and Chiaramonte decided to pull together a group of local companies to advise and discuss the shortage in the area and brainstorm ways to recruit young workers. Discussions led to a plan to establish a precision sheet metal fabrication program at the school.

The plan involved securing funding, acquiring equipment, and establishing a curriculum. Using their industry connections, Chiaramonte and Kirkwood administrators made requests for equipment from suppliers, including Murata Machinery USA, MC Machinery, and Amada. The school also leveraged Chiaramonte's relationship with FMA (board director) to help develop the curriculum.

Beginning in the fall of 2008, Kirkwood will offer an advanced manufacturing fabrication degree that includes courses in communications, print reading, fabrication math, fabrication practices, human relations, CAD, and programming. The two-year program is certified through the state and the board of trustees at the school. Students who complete the coursework will receive an associate of applied science degree. Kirkwood hopes to reach prospective students through its outreach to local high schools.

The school also offers a continuing education course that teaches basic press brake operation. The course has been well-received.

So there you have it—a model for doing something about the skilled labor shortage. It's a model that could be replicated across the country, if people and entities pull together to make it happen. Who knows? Perhaps the Ohio businessman who called today can do the same. I hope he calls me when he does.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209