Tech Boom

Posted on Nov 1, 2015 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

Manufacturers have recognized for a while that as baby boomers retire, they’re going to need to find workers to replace them. But it’s not just about getting bodies to fill spaces.

As manufacturing evolves to rely on more technical processes, manufacturers need a different kind of worker. Instead of hiring someone to assemble a certain part on a line, they might instead need someone capable of programming the computer to assemble the part. Or someone to design the line.

“Our work is taking a much more technology-based skill set,” says Scott Kettler, president of EMT International in Hobart. “To classify as an operator, that operator needs to be able to not only run a machine but troubleshoot problems. So there’s a higher level of skills required.”

But employers like EMT need even more than technical skills from their workers.

It takes a special recipe of technical know-how, adaptability, flexibility and good communication skills to create an ideal worker for today’s manufacturing environment. And those are the workers they’re having trouble finding.

“It’s very difficult to find people,” says Randy Harbath, vice president of manufacturing for Georgia-Pacific. “Right now, for every 20 people that apply, we find one. Our success rate is 5 percent.”

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and other colleges and universities are working on closing that gap. NWTC graduates more than 400 students in all of its manufacturing programs each year, says Mark Weber, dean of trades & engineering technology at NWTC.

Weber says he’s seen the evolution toward more streamlined, technology-based operations happen rather quickly.

Technology shift

“It’s a process that started maybe 15 years ago and is just accelerating,” Weber says. “When you look at a manufacturing facility — and I spent 20 years of my career in several — basically everything’s computerized.”

The shift toward smart devices, computers — and by necessity, environmental hygiene — is changing the function, look and feel of manufacturing facilities, he says.

“I think for the people who work in those environments, it takes a shift in both preparedness and the mindset that the cultures they’re going into are much more employee-involved, technology-driven and they’re much healthier environments than they were not long ago,” Weber says.

This is true particularly in Northeast Wisconsin, where a high percentage of manufacturing is focused on custom production, job shops and high-end machining, he says.

“Their employees really need to be adaptive. They really need to be able to do different things,” Weber says. “That’s what I hear from manufacturers: ‘We just really need good thinkers with technical skills.’”

And they need people that can problem solve, work with others and show up on time — those key employability skills, he says.

UW-Oshkosh and UW-Green Bay are working on boosting the local supply of problem-solvers through three new engineering programs created through efforts by the NEW Manufacturing Alliance and NEW ERA, the Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance. Students are able to attend a New North-area technical college for the first two years of the program and finish at either of the universities.

UW-Oshkosh is in its second year of the program with 53 students and UW-Green Bay launched its program this fall, with 30 students.

Prospective engineers can choose from three different tracks: electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and environmental engineering technology.

“The old factory jobs that were out there 30 or 40 years ago — those are just disappearing,” says Scott Furlong, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at UW-Green Bay. “What’s required now are people who have the skills not only to do some of the very technical work, but also the critical thinking skills to go into these places and work with a team.”

Critical skills

“Some companies literally have hundreds of unfilled positions because they can’t find the people — and that presents a challenge to growth for those companies,” says Greg Kleinheinz, Viessman chair of sustainable technology and professor of environmental engineering at UW-Oshkosh. “Once you have that workforce development in place, you’re able to more reliably grow
that business.”

Officials at both universities work with manufacturers on an advisory board to help develop the engineering programs and keep them up to date.

Program leaders have been out in the community talking about the program to middle and high schools to boost awareness, Kleinheinz says. The university also is offering an introductory class in 60 high schools around the state.

“A lot of the companies have said to us, ‘If you wait until college, it’s almost too late,’” Furlong says. “You really have to get down into the high schools or perhaps even before — elementary and middle schools — and really try to get people to understand that as we’re moving into a different era with our economy, a four-year degree is becoming much more needed.”

The universities work on the technical skills, of course, but also focus on critical thinking, project management and the development of new ideas and concepts that will be so critical to manufacturers in the coming years.

“Some of the projects that these students might be working on in the future are things that people haven’t even seen yet,” Kleinheinz says.

The program also helps build a generation of new workers that have the right kinds of skills for a job rather than starting at a company with a degree that’s “close.”

“What we’re trying to accomplish as a part of this bachelor’s degree is to produce graduates who can keep up with changing technology,” says John Koker, dean of the College of Letters & Science at UW-Oshkosh. “In other words, they’re not just training on a specific type of machine, or to do a task.”

As technology changes, these workers should be committed to lifelong learning and ongoing professional development. The degree program is meant to prepare them to grow into a career, rather than preparing for a job, he says. And they need to be versatile.

“A lot of the HR people and CEOs I’ve talked with talk about the technical skills, but also those critical thinking skills,” Koker says. “That people have to realize that they’re going to have to be able to adapt and learn and change on the job as technology grows.”

They also want people who might be hired as an engineering technologist but also end up as a member of the sales force or a member of the management team. “They were telling me that’s kind of a win-win situation,” Koker says.

Koker also has been involved in the new regional Information Technology Alliance, led by Kathi Seifert, president and owner of Katapult, LLC and co-chair of New North, Inc. Leaders in the IT alliance have a goal of creating degree programs also focused on IT — which is becoming more important to manufacturing as the industry relies more on technology.

“IT is needed in all industries and at all levels in industry to better equip businesses and grow their top and bottom line results to compete more effectively,” Seifert says. “So we need more IT talent to do that.”

Attraction and retention

The new IT alliance hopes to inspire people of all ages to pursue information technology as a career pathway — which is widely varied, covering areas such as software engineering, data analysis, quality assurance, and information security — and to inspire people already working to return to school to build their
IT skills.

“We are trying to encourage people to realize that regardless of their skills — yes, if they’re good in math and science — but also if they’re creative and innovative in their thinking, good at problem solving and working in teams, then there are IT opportunities for them,” Seifert says.

The alliance also wants to inspire IT professionals to relocate to Northeast Wisconsin to help build business here.

Having a new degree program will help develop the talent that’s already here, as it’s starting to withthe engineering programs at UW-Oshkosh and UW-Green Bay.

“And by developing this talent pool that’s grown locally — primarily students that come from the area and want to stay in the area — that provides a much more stable platform for manufacturers to keep employees over the long term,” Kleinheinz says.

That helps companies avoid the time, effort and cost in recruiting and training new workers, an extra expense that manufacturers don’t need. Area educators also are working to enhance programs for returning students — employees who are mid-career and looking to upgrade their skills — and the need is only going to accelerate.

Manufacturers are recognizing the need to change the way they do some things to help keep the workers they have and attract the workers they want.

Georgia-Pacific works with area two-year colleges and high schools, but the company also knows it needs to take action internally. “We now have a group of skill-builders and skill-developers to help train people,” Harbath says.

Georgia-Pacific also eliminated its old seniority system, ensuring that the right people with the right skills are placed in the right jobs, Harbath says. It also offers salaries based on value creation, not job title. That takes a big shift in thinking and culture.

“The change we’ve seen at our facility is absolutely remarkable,” Harbath says — employee retention, morale and production are all improved.

Kettler says manufacturers and educators have done a great job working with schools and with each other through the NEW Manufacturing Alliance. “But we also have to keep challenging ourselves and each other to continue with what’s next,” Kettler says. “And what’s next is really what none of us can predict — if we look at how fast technology is moving. In the next five years or 10 years— what’s our manufacturing floor going to look like, and how are we going to prepare ourselves? It’s really exciting.”