Once upon a time, people went to work in dark, gloomy places where they made heavy things on some kind of machinery. They went inside gritty buildings every day and they did the same thing for 40 years, if they were lucky.
Some people still believe this is a modern-day tale. But the face of manufacturing has outgrown its down-and-dirty image, and the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance, led by director Ann Franz, has been working to tell a new story for nearly eight years.
“What makes (the alliance) special is that it’s really manufacturer-led,” says Franz, who also is the strategic partnerships manager at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.
One day, Franz received a call from Paul Rauscher, president of EMT International in Hobart. “He said, ‘You know, I’m looking at my plant floor, and I see a lot of old people, and I plan on being here a lot longer than these people plan on being here – and is there any organization really trying to work on this issue?’”
Franz and Rauscher met in January 2006 with the presidents of NWTC and Lakeshore Technical College and some area economic development leaders to discuss ideas. At the time, Rauscher was the only manufacturer at the table. So that March, they invited six companies to join them. In June, they met again with 12 manufacturers, and the NEW Manufacturing Alliance (NEWMA) was born.
“Our whole vision focus is to get people excited about manufacturing careers,” Franz says.
Now, nearly eight years later, the organization has 83 manufacturer members, 21 associate members and 19 affiliate members such as economic development agencies and chambers of commerce. And it has made significant headway in its goal of updating the dark and dirty image that industry leaders fear is keeping young people away from manufacturing careers.
Inspiring at a younger age
Lori Peacock, career and technical education partnerships and program director at Green Bay Area Public Schools, is seeing evidence of an image change on a number of different levels. “Our principals are seeing manufacturing differently, our school counselors are seeing manufacturing differently, and so are our instructors.”
Educators from the district have been touring manufacturing facilities, which helps tie the relevancy of the classroom to the world of work.
“Last year, one of our math teachers from one of our high schools went to Georgia-Pacific, and he got back to school and said to his principal, ‘I’ll never teach math in the same way,’” says Peacock, who serves on the alliance’s K-12 task force.
The other thing Peacock has seen is the district providing more science, technology and math (STEM)-related courses and opportunities for kids. Southwest High School upgraded its technology hallway, and schools are offering classes such as industrial welding, blueprint reading and robotics. The district also is building a manufacturing learning lab at West High School that will open in October and will be a working job shop, similar to the one already established at Algoma High School (see Education & Training).
These are just a few examples of partnerships between the alliance, educators and NWTC.
“It’s kind of this ‘trifecta of goodness’ with the school district, business and industry and post-secondary education all working together,” Peacock says.
Already reaping results
It’s working. Franz says NWTC graduated 19 welders in 2000. In 2005, there were 28. In 2010, four years after the launch of the alliance, 109 welders graduated. Now NWTC has more than 200 people enrolled in the program. This year’s All Stars publication, like the first year it was published, features a welder on the cover (see insert). The publication, sponsored by NEWMA and published by Insight Publications LLC, is circulated in high schools and features young faces to appeal to teens and young adults who are thinking of possible career directions.
Franz says Mark Kaiser, president of Lindquist Machine and outgoing alliance chairman, put a strong focus on K-12 collaboration. “That relationship has just grown where we are just seeing so much interest from schools on how can they work with us, and it’s amazing. My phone, weekly, has a new educator asking, ‘How can we connect?’”
Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing in Washington, D.C., who spoke at the Manufacturing First conference in Green Bay in 2011, says that educator/manufacturer partnerships can help address the many challenges faced by manufacturers.
“The communities that do have this type of connection seem to be doing better,” Paul says.
A group like the alliance can help to share best practices and provide a forum for getting together.
“I found in Wisconsin a lot of awareness of the importance of manufacturing, which did give me some reason to be optimistic,” Paul says. “There is that challenge of trying to persuade the community, elected officials and young people who may be considering careers there’s a future in manufacturing, because for a long time it was kind of in doubt.”
Scott Kettler, general manager at Plexus and incoming NEWMA chairman, says a lack of understanding about what manufacturing entails is one of the industry’s biggest hurdles.
“I think my biggest heartburn is manufacturing has always had a negative connotation, that they weren’t well-paying jobs, that there weren’t good careers in manufacturing,” Kettler says. “We’ve got to promote just how manufacturing has grown over the years in both technology and in skills-based jobs.”
Manufacturing is “filled with high-tech equipment that takes skilled, knowledgeable people to run the equipment,” Kettler says.
“We really need to create our workforce,” Kettler says. “If we’re not out doing it, who is going to do it? So, if you truly care about manufacturing, it is incumbent on us to continue to drive that positive view and change that view of manufacturing for the 21st century.”
Kettler says that along with technical skills, employers are looking for workers strong in so-called “soft skills,” such as communication and work ethic.
“That’s been one of our key strategic initiatives for the last couple of years,” Kaiser said at the New North summit presentation of the Vitality Index. “It’s a difficult issue to get your arms around because it’s hard to measure. We’re committed to continuing down a path to try to figure out a solution to this and work with both the K-12 and the secondary schools to try to figure out how we can improve this area.”
These employability skills are often thought of as secondary, Peacock says.
“What I hear from employers is, ‘If kids had some basic knowledge and skills, I can teach them what they need to do to be a good employee, as far as building something or making something, but I can’t teach them those interpersonal skills to the level that they need to have them by the time they show up here.’”
The alliance’s Development Task Force worked for a couple of years creating a leadership academy for frontline production workers, using a survey of members to target the most-needed soft skills. Lakeshore Technical College offered the first peer leader training programs and now NWTC is offering them as well.
“That’s one of the keys of this organization, is hearing the voice of manufacturers,” Franz says. “When you think that 23 percent of all our jobs are in manufacturing, it’s critical that we have people thinking as a whole about the workforce.”
Reggie Newson, secretary of the state Department of Workforce Development, says the alliance’s collaboration with educators is a best practices model for other Wisconsin regions keeping an eye on what’s happening in the New North.
“That’s why we like to spend so much time up there working with them,” says Newson, who has spoken at the alliance’s Manufacturing First conference. “They really are setting the stage for what we want to do statewide.”
Franz would like to see membership grow by 30 percent in the coming years to help give the alliance a stronger voice with the state.
“Our goal is that every student and parent will know that manufacturing is a viable career choice and that awareness is critical for them to make good decisions,” Franz says. “We don’t expect every child to go into manufacturing, but they need to be exposed to know what those careers are, and then they can make that choice.
“We’re excited about the future because we’ve seen that the messaging is resonating. We just have a lot more to do.”
Also in the works for NEWMA:
Recent efforts of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance also include:
» Alliance members met with state Department of Public Instruction Superintendent
Tony Evers to see how soft skills such as communication and professionalism can be addressed in the K-12 curriculum. The alliance also works closely with NEW ERA, a coalition of the technical, two-year and four-year schools in the New North.
» The Manufacturing Partnership Education Awards, held in October by the alliance, raised more than $6,000 for college scholarships with its live and silent auctions, recognizing educators and manufacturers who are collaborating to showcase manufacturing as a viable career choice.
» The Manufacturing First Expo & Conference, held Oct. 31, drew 134 exhibitors, 800 registered attendees and 200 high school students and teachers.
» The NEWMA website is being redesigned to appeal to job seekers, member manufacturers and the 18- to 29-year-old crowd. The alliance also is building its social media platform to help showcase the adult career pathways that are available to young people.
» Manufacturers and educators have teamed up on a math video project that shares on-the-job math problems with students. “These are real problems that manufacturers have,” Franz says. “They’re not made up. In addition, we have a lesson plan for the math teacher, so the kids get an opportunity to learn about that career, too. … They’re able to see what manufacturing’s about and be aware of it.”
To see the math education videos, visit www.youtube.com and search “NEWMA math video.”
Most New North manufacturers say their companies are in good health
The 2014 Manufacturing Vitality Index results, presented Dec. 6 during the New North summit in Green Bay, show an industry that’s confident about growth, but concerned about being able to fill the skilled jobs needed to accommodate that growth.
The index, the result of a survey conducted by the NEW Manufacturing Alliance in partnership with the UW-Oshkosh Business Success Center, targeted the 392 companies in the New North with revenues over $3 million and more than 25 employees.
Of those companies, 111 responded to the survey, which examined areas such as growth, plant expansions, workforce and future recommendations.
“Over 90 percent said they were financially healthy, and that’s critical for our area,” says Ann Franz, director of the alliance. “Half are doing some type of plant modernization, which is going to require a higher skill set, and one out of three plan on hiring each quarter in 2014.”
Still, 60 percent of the respondents are concerned about finding workers to fill those jobs, Franz says. That’s a dramatic increase from the first year of the study, when 29 percent of manufacturers expressed the same concern. The alliance and other groups throughout the state are trying to work on the skills shortage problem, she says.
“It’s interesting, because our local colleges and universities are actually having higher enrollment in the manufacturing areas,” says Scott Kettler, chairman of the alliance. “But because of this need, because of the growth, modernization and the skills that are required, we’re still falling short in having the right skills for the jobs that we have.”
The critical skill areas where workers are needed include CNC machining, specialized welding, commercial truck driving, team assembling and engineering technology, according to the index.
Additionally, the most in-demand “soft skills” – which employers are finding to be critical in an increasingly team-driven work environment – include communication, work ethic, time management, teamwork and professionalism.
“This is still a big problem that we’re seeing in the workforce coming in,” Kettler said. “That’s people having these 21st century skills to be able to fill roles and grow with the companies.”
Other data from the survey:
» In 2013, 66 percent of respondents saw increased sales. Sixty percent say they’ll see increases in customers and quotes for products or services.
» In 2011, 36 percent of manufacturers planned to modernize their facilities. In 2014, about half expect to upgrade.
» Employee retirements pose a challenge to many companies, some of which are losing 10 percent of their workforce annually as baby boomers retire.
Some of the recommendations include enlisting retirees to mentor and train new workers; opening up opportunities for K-12 students, educators and parents to tour manufacturing facilities to witness modern manufacturing processes, and assist in curriculum design for technical colleges and universities.
Bill Chaudoir, executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corporation, says the index closely matches what he’s seeing in Door County: investments in capital equipment are up, profitability is up and jobs are slowly growing – but more needs to be done to address the labor shortage.
“It’s absolutely critical,” Chaudoir says. “As the economy gets better, that labor shortage gets tighter. It’s more significant, more severe. One thing I want to do is promote more manufacturer participation in the alliance here in my own county, because I don’t think we have as strong of participation as we should.”
While the county has business and education partnerships at the local level, “It’s so much more powerful when you’re doing it as a larger group – it’s a lot of power, the variety and diversity of the programming they can offer,” Chaudoir says.
Jim Golembeski, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board, says the region is maintaining a healthy manufacturing environment, but “that concern about the skills shortage just seems to get higher and higher each year.”
At the same time, initiatives like creating the alliance itself in 2006 have proven successful in working toward addressing that skills problem, he says.
“If we had not created this (alliance), where would we be?” Golembeski says. “We’ve built the foundation that we need to respond to some of those challenges. The other thing I see is I think we are better prepared to compete globally than we’ve ever been. … I think we’re standing on the edge of a lot of new opportunity.”
On the web
To learn more about the alliance or to become a member, visit www.newmfgalliance.org.
To see a copy of the Manufacturing Vitality Index, visit www.newmfgalliance.org.