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Posted on Dec 9, 2010 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

With skilled workers retiring and the demand for advanced skills increasing, few manufacturers in Northeast Wisconsin have been content to wait patiently for the next generation of skilled workers to materialize. Instead, they’ve been aggressive in working with technical colleges and workforce development boards to cultivate that workforce by creating skills programs and encouraging young people to develop those sought-after skills.

Case in point: Kiel-based HUI Inc.’s latest effort to train workforce leaders can trace its roots back to a simple apprenticeship program. Like many manufacturers, HUI has long had an apprenticeship program that brings high school students interested in manufacturing, sheet metal fabrication or welding onto the shop floor to learn some of the basic skills necessary for a career in the field. Some of those apprentices eventually joined the company full-time, but even after apprentice training, company managers found they needed additional skills to compete in the modern manufacturing workforce. Workers were often sent to Lakeshore Technical College to learn the necessary skills.

While the training was a benefit, there were some shortcomings as well, particularly for employees the company was looking to train as leaders and managers. While those employees learned the skills needed to make the next step in their career, they did not necessarily learn them in a context of HUI’s manufacturing process. HUI (founded in 1933 as Household Utilities Inc.) is a sheet metal fabricator that specializes in custom medical and industrial carts.

The solution: LTC now comes to them. For nearly two years, LTC has been holding manufacturing management classes on-site at HUI, where the curriculum can be taught to the company’s management candidates, incorporating HUI’s manufacturing processes.

“At HUI, we are very big on lean manufacturing,” says Nick Rolf, human resources manager. “We want to develop our up-and-coming leaders. We have fewer misses when we develop them from within, because we have someone who understands and knows our culture.”

At HUI, as many as six employees go through the program at any given time. The program is not a replacement for LTC’s standard offerings, and the company still sends employees to LTC for training. But for those moving into management, the training now quite literally takes place on the job.

“This is something that we went looking for,” Rolf says. “I can’t say that I have ever had to justify it, because our company leadership believes in it so strongly.”

The relationship between HUI and LTC is but one snapshot in a rapidly growing gallery of customized training options that have developed during the past several years between Northeast Wisconsin companies, regional technical colleges and workforce development boards. As the workplace skill set has become more demanding, particularly for area manufacturers, so too have the unique demands and processes of individual companies. That has led to a dilemma where the standard training curriculum does not address all of a company’s needs.

Just like a manufacturer will customize a piece of equipment to meet their needs or a customer’s requirements, now they want the training customized as well.

“I wouldn’t say that it is anything new, almost everything we do these days is changed or customized,” says Peter Thillman, director of workforce solutions for LTC. “Even our regular classes are geared toward making sure employees have the skill set to compete in specific industries.”
While the technical colleges have always worked to make sure their graduates are ready to go to work in particular industries such as welding or high speed manufacturing, many company’s are now also asking for training specific to particular machinery or processes, Thillman says. The growth of lean practices has also helped fuel that demand. Sometimes that can be accommodated in the classroom, while other times it calls for customizing the curriculum to work on a particular site. Soft skills such as customer service and leadership are also in great demand.

The types of customized training that companies are asking for is as varied as the companies themselves. Whether it’s making sure new employees are ready for work on day one, or making sure existing employees have the skills to launch new products or implement lean processes, many area companies are looking to the technical schools and workforce development boards to help them keep the workforce current.

Working with Moraine Park Technical College, Lomira-based Kondex Corp. has developed a series of on-site workshops for its workforce, focusing on soft skill areas such as customer service, as well as quality control and advanced tool and die.
“We want to increase the value at Kondex by increasing the value of our associates,» says Kondex President Jim Wessing. “We want them to be able to grow with their responsibilities in the work place. We want them to have all the tools they need.”

“It benefits both sides,” says Kathy Schlieve, director of workforce and economic development at Moraine Park. “The employers get customized training a great deal of confidence the employees skills will work in their environment. As a school, it helps us stay sharp so that we know what students need and can keep the skills we teach are current.”

Fox Valley Technical College has created a program to enhance the technical skills of welders so they are ready to step in on day one at Oshkosh Corp., which has recently received several multi-million contracts to build specialized vehicles for the U.S. military. In addition, FVTC has programs that help several area companies train employees in lean skills in a variety of applications.

“What we are seeing is a real push for lean, so we try to build it in as much as possible to our programs,” says Dale Walker, director of business and industry services at FVTC. “There are some critical skills they seem to want, including leadership, team building and communication.”
In additional to contracting with specific employers, FVTC and several area employers also partner up on more programmatic training. Brillion-based Ariens Corp., which manufactures snow throwers and lawn equipment, is actively involved with the technical college’s outdoor power equipment and horticulture programs.

Even with the rocky economic times, most educators see these types of partnerships becoming more prevalent.

“We want these companies to sign off on what we do, we don’t want to guess,” Thillman says. “They want employees that are productive on day one, so we want them to say this is what they need.”
In Green Bay, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and Georgia-Pacific are partnering on a co-op program that will provide customized training for Georgia-Pacific’s current workers and leaders, and also shape the training of prospective employees. Georgia-Pacific leaders decided they needed a program that will allow both employee and employer a chance to see if there is a good fit. Under the agreement, NWTC will help Georgia Pacific screen, hire and train selected students so they are prepared to work for Georgia Pacific upon graduation. Selected students agree to stay in school, and Georgia-Pacific provides on-the-job training and pay the student for the hours worked.

Georgia-Pacific has identified three students in the school’s electromechanical program who are taking part in the program for this year, which is being treated as a pilot year of the program. Several other companies have already expressed an interest in a similar program, says Pam Mazur, associate dean for trades and engineering technology.

Essentially, students are identified as prospective employees early on, get to work part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer, and can then go to work with the company after receiving their degree. The students are responsible for paying the costs of their education and are not obligated to work for Georgia Pacific.

“I think that’s how companies are going to get those employees they need, by getting them early on,” Mazur says. “It’s good for the company and it’s good for the student. They get to make a good wage in a good part-time job while going to school. Even if they are not hired by the company in the end, they have some marketable skills.”

Mazur says companies see this as a way to bridge a skills gap between impending retirements in their current workforce and the general population. For NWTC and the student, one of the key elements is that they do not leave school early and end up “jobbing out” without ever completing a degree.

“The whole point of what we do is to get that associate degree,” she says. “We are seeing more and more companies that are requiring that degree.”

Not all companies are seeking full degree programs for their customized training. Still, the employer demand for the training is there.

An estimated 2,000 employers work with FVTC on workforce training each year. Not all of that training is on-site or tailored to a specific company. The numbers of requests for customized training reported by technical schools in the region are eye-popping, with most schools reporting they work with more than 1,000 businesses a year on training solutions, though the recent recession has changed the nature of some of the arrangements.

With some pools of government training funds available to retrain workers, some companies have looked to the area’s workforce development board to provide work ready employees to expand their workforce.

In an effort to meet those demands, the Bay Area Workforce Development Board has launched its Work Certified program, which is a three-week training program designed to help job seekers and entry-level employees understand the skills they need to be successful in the current economy.

“It’s recognition that some of the basics – what we call soft skills – have changed so much that a lot of people just aren’t current with what employers are looking for,” says Jim Golembeski, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board. “It’s not just the sales and marketing folks who need to have customer service skills.”

Tracking of the program in states where it has been used have shown that 96 percent of the job seekers who go through the program find employment within 30 days and 89 percent are still employed after six months.

For the Bay Area Workforce Development Board, the program is one more in an arsenal of retaining programs that will help folks get back to work. For the prospective employers, they know they are getting an employee who has the basics needed to thrive.

Golembeski says the program has helped bridge the gap between the higher skill set needed in the new manufacturing economy and the low skills of some of the displaced workers.

“We still have men and women who have never touched a computer, who were able to come out of high school and get jobs paying $16 an hour,” he says. “That’s just not there anymore.”