Workers For The Long Haul

Posted on Feb 1, 2009 :: Development
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Moraine Park instructor Gerry Vanderloop demonstrates a robotic arm.

While layoffs and plant closing announcements are a regular part of the nightly news, Fond du Lac County is actually in need of workers – at least 17,000 within the next 15 years.

That was the finding of a Retirement and Departure Intentions Survey Report conducted by the Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce and the Fond du Lac Human Resource Association in conjunction with Moraine Park Technical College. The impending retirements of baby boomers combined with a declining population are the main reasons cited in the future employee shortfall. But Fond du Lac County officials are not standing by idle. They are developing plans to make sure when the worker shortage arrives the county’s businesses will be ready.

“We are attacking this challenge at multiple levels, specifically trying to more closely link the K-12 school system and the technical colleges. We want to get the message to students there are jobs out there that don’t require a four-year degree and there are plenty of them right here in Fond du Lac,” says Joe Reitemeier, president and chief executive officer of the Fond du Lac Association of Commerce.

More than 60 educators and business people have stepped forward to get the word out about the county’s need for workers and what needs to be done to help Fond du Lac avoid a serious shortfall.

Those involved know it’s a little bit ironic to talk about a worker shortage as the economy stumbles, says Dr. Josh Bullock, vice president at Moraine Park Technical College. For example, Mercury Marine – Fond du Lac’s largest employer with more than 2,000 workers – laid off more than 150 employees late last year while Quad Graphics announced plans in mid-January to cut 550 workers at all of their facilities, including about 400 at its five plants in Wisconsin: Hartford, Lomira, Pewaukee, Sussex and West Allis. The Lomira site in northern Dodge County employs hundreds of Fond du Lac County residents.

“People realize we are in this for the long term,” Bullock says. “This isn’t about fixing something going on now; this is about making sure we have steps in place to avoid an even larger problem down the road.”

The 2008 study revealed 48 percent of all county workers plan to retire within the next 15 years while at the same time the population estimates for the Fond du Lac area are on a downward trend since there are fewer members of Generation Y and the Millennium Generation to take the place of the retiring boomers. The county also has to deal with young people who grow up in Fond du Lac, but leave for college or military service and don’t return. Bullock says the hardest hit areas will be in education, government, health care and manufacturing.

“We are trying to take a visionary approach to this future issue and develop ways to fill these jobs whether it’s through training or other methods that are also economical,” he says. “A downturn like we’re in now causes a two to three year shift in the workforce. What we are talking about is much more dramatic.”

And while the technical college is working with people currently out of work, it is also partnering with businesses and the K-12 education system to identify where the greatest needs exist and develop a plan to address them.

“It’s not only about training, but also working with employers to understand what younger workers want in a job and what they can do to attract and retain this younger generation,” Bullock says. “We are really trying to focus on workforce preparedness and labor availability through a number of initiatives and programs.”

Strengthening relationships between the business community and schools is imperative, Reitemeier says. “The workforce of the 21st Century begins in our schools. We want to work with them and help students make decisions earlier about their career paths,” he says. “For example, if someone shows aptitude in a certain area while in high school, can they start earning technical college credits earlier? Then when these students are finally in the workforce, they will bring with them a higher level of skill.”

One program currently in place – Project GRILL – is designed to bring students and companies closer together. In Project GRILL, students from six tech-ed programs are matched with local companies as they spend the school year making a charcoal grill from scratch. The program aims to build relationships between manufacturers and schools and open students’ minds to careers in manufacturing, Reitemeier says.

Another key, Reitemeier says, is communicating with high school grads that leave the area for college or military service. “We need to let them know there are good opportunities here in Fond du Lac and that the community is interested in them and their success. It’s a higher level of marketing,” he says.

The county is also embarking on a diversity talent attraction and retention survey, in conjunction with the Fond du Lac Economic Development Corp. and the University of Wisconsin-Extension to gather more information about the future of the county’s workforce and what can be done to strengthen it.

And even though the economy is currently on shaky ground, Reitemeier says Fond du Lac can’t “take its foot off the pedal. When the economy rebounds, there will be a pent-up demand for workers and we need to make sure we’re competitive.”

Reitemeier says Fond du Lac officials also realize they are not alone when it comes to facing a shortage of workers in the future. It’s his hope, however, that by developing and implementing plans now to funnel workers into various fields that the county will be ahead of the curve.