Manufacturing’s bright future

Young technical workers are key to maintaining industry growth

Posted on Jan 26, 2016 :: Vitality Index
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

The state of manufacturing in Northeast Wisconsin is, well, a Dickensian tale.

The good news is that manufacturers are still highly optimistic about the state of their financial health and growth. The not-so-great news remains the same: As manufacturers grow and modernize, they’re afraid they won’t find the technically trained workers they desperately need.

The NEW Manufacturing Alliance’s 2016 Manufacturing Vitality Index, an annual survey of New North-area manufacturers on the state of the industry, was released during the
recent New North summit. Among its highlights:

  • 96 percent of manufacturers say their company is financially healthy or quite healthy, up 1 percent from 2015.
  • 75 percent of manufacturers expect sales to increase in 2016.
  • 60 percent plan to modernize their facilities in 2016, down slightly from 66 percent in 2015.
  • 43 percent plan to hire in the first quarter of 2016.
  • 78 percent say they anticipate trouble finding the skilled workers to fill those open positions.

“The skills shortage is the huge thing,” says Ann Franz, alliance director. “When we first started this study (in 2011) it was 29 percent — now it’s 78 percent. When you look at our increases (in enrollment) at the technical colleges — 200 to 300 percent-plus increases — it’s still not enough to meet the need.”

Top in-demand career areas noted in the survey include machinists (including computer numerically controlled, or CNC, machinists), general labor, engineers, sales reps, welders, maintenance mechanics and information technology specialists, in that order.

“Understanding the health needs of the manufacturing industry in this region is really critical for all of us, whether you’re a manufacturer, educator or economic developer,” Mike Kawleski, who leads the alliance’s communication taskforce, said during the New North event. “You’ve heard the statistic that manufacturers employ about 23 percent of the entire workforce in the New North, and that’s more than any other industry sector.”

The survey, administered by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Business Success Center, phoned New North manufacturers that had $3 million or more in revenue and 25 or more employees. About 150 manufacturers out of a possible 392 participated.

The alliance, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has helped grow enrollment at technical colleges in the key program areas noted by the index. Mark Kaiser, president and CEO of Lindquist Machine, and one of the founders of the alliance, said duringthe conference that in 2005, machine degree programs had 180 students enrolled. In 2014, the number had grown to 513. Welding programs had 193, and that number grew to 724
in 2014.

“I think it’s safe to say that the effort that we’ve been making with the alliance, in conjunction with our partners, is having a really positive impact on the manufacturing sector here in the New North,” Kaiser said.

Two new engineering programs also have opened in the area in 2014 and 2015 through UW-Oshkosh and UW-Green Bay. Students can complete their first two years at a New North-area technical college and then finish their degree through either of these four-year partners.

“Sixty percent of the manufacturers are saying they’re going to invest money in modernizing their plants,” Kaiser said after the presentation. “This is really good news for all of us. It means more jobs, and this means that they’re being successful and they’re growing their business.”

That figure is up from 46 percent in 2013, Kawleski said. “Of course, in many cases, this modernization will require employees to have a higher skill set, because obviously you’re investing in more highly technical equipment in your manufacturing firms.”

To help increase interest among young people in manufacturing careers, the alliance hopes to do more to show parents what the new face of manufacturing looks like. Since 2009, it has shared the All Stars magazine (included in this month’s issue) with schools to feature some of the area’s top young people in the industry, including those in high-demand career fields.

“Continuing to help parents educate their children on what are the jobs that are going to be available will help,”
Franz says.

Among its efforts, the alliance also is working with K-12 educators on piloting an employability skills training program to focus on the “soft skills,” the non-technical skills that manufacturers also seek. The index noted that soft skills highest in demand include communication, attendance, work ethic, math skills and decision-making ability — the kinds of skills that are best
taught early.

“I think among the things we’re doing right is we’re working in a much more collaborative way to solve some of our problems, particularly in this workforce area,” Kaiser says. “But I think we’re in our infancy here, and I think this is a long-term issue that is not going to be solved in just a couple of years.”

Taking the engagement with educators to the next level will be the next step, he says.

“I don’t know exactly how that’s going to look yet, but my sense is it’s going to be having us manufacturers spend more time directly in classrooms, or maybe more time in front of teachers spreading our message,” Kaiser says. “And I think we have a great message to spread.”