Workers Wanted

Posted on Mar 9, 2012 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

Wisconsin Plastics Inc.’s new facility in downtown Green Bay is set to go. The equipment for the 18,000-square-foot facility is in place and business is brisk. There’s just a slight problem. The company is in need of workers, and not just any workers – but workers with the right set of skills.

“Business is good, but finding skilled workers is definitely a challenge,” says Mark Olsen, the chief financial officer for the company, which provides standalone services or can be a complete one-stop shop that will help a company successfully design, manufacture and launch a product, including design and development, stamping and painting and fabrication.

WPI is not alone. Recent surveys identify a lack of skilled workers as a key concern for manufacturers. And while there are long-term solutions in the pipeline — such as getting teens interested in manufacturing careers or specific training programs like the one between Marinette Marine Co. and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (see story on page 14) — many companies are struggling about what to do now.

It’s a familiar story to Mark Hatzenbeller, regional account manager for the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He says companies have few attractive options when the labor market is lacking – pay current workers overtime (which can lead to fatigue and lower morale), require longer turnaround time for projects or say no to work altogether.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t talk to a business dealing with these issues,” Hatzenbeller says, adding that WMEP held a lunch-and-learn in Green Bay earlier this year on the topic and the room was packed. “Everyone wants to know what to do.”

The No. 1 piece of advice Hatzenbeller gives manufacturers? Invest in recruitment and training and make it the top priority.

“When working with manufacturers, I try to reframe the discussion and say you need to be willing to invest in finding workers. I’ll tell someone – you see that idle CNC machine over there? How much is that costing you in sales? Isn’t it worth you going out and spending money to recruit or invest in someone so you can use that machine?” he says. “You need to invest in your talent strategically, just like if you are investing in a sales strategy.”

And for employers just “making it” by having workers put in OT or stretching out deadlines, what will happen if business ramps up even more? What will they do then? That’s a question many manufacturers don’t have an answer to yet, Hatzenbeller says.

Manufacturers are optimistic about how things are going in business, according to the second annual Manufacturing Vitality Index, which was put together by the NEW Manufacturing Alliance. Orders and profits are up, but 45 percent of manufacturers predict trouble finding the workers they need with the right set of skills.

Likewise, a survey of U.S. manufacturers by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute last year found that as many as 600,000 jobs are vacant nationwide because there aren’t enough skilled workers to go around.

And in Wisconsin, where manufacturing makes up more than a fifth of all jobs, finding a way to deal with the shortage is essential, says Buckley Brinkman, executive director of WMEP. “Many manufacturers are seeing their growth shut off because they can’t find workers,” he says. “Who knows? If we can’t find workers and our plants can’t grow, what’s to stop another state from coming in and convincing our manufacturers to move there because they have the workers?”
Nearly half of all manufacturers – 48 percent – plan to add workers in 2012, according to the National Economic Trends Survey, which was published earlier this year.

Brinkman says it’s nearly impossible to find a manufacturer who doesn’t admit that the most common problem keeping him up at night is finding enough of the right talent. He says manufacturers who have been proactive by investing in employees and training while forging relationships with high schools and technical colleges on recruitment are definitely the ones who are coming out ahead.

“It’s great seeing the number of initiatives going across the state with trying to get new workers in the pipeline. We unfortunately lost a whole generation to manufacturing,” he says. “For a long time, it wasn’t cool or advisable to go into manufacturing, but that mentality is now changing.”
Dawn Sonnenberg, director of operations for Tegron Staffing in Appleton, says talking with her manufacturing clients is a bit like hearing “a broken record” with the need high for CNC (computer numerical control) machinists and welders.

“A lot of businesses aren’t at full capacity now and they can’t find enough workers, so there’s a fear about what will happen when business does increase. Then what will happen?” she says. “Employers who are using a lot of OT also know there’s a concern about burnout.”

But employers know too that overtime is necessary, especially when new employees start out and training is needed.

As for those new employees, Sonnenberg says many employers realize they need to adjust their mindset. “Employers who used to want five years of experience now realize they will need to accept two years of experience or perhaps someone with no experience in that industry but may have transferable skills,” she says.

Trevor Welson, owner of Sign Elements in Greenville, says his company definitely feels the effects of the skilled labor shortage.

“Skilled labor is the No. 1 bottleneck. Simply put, it has hindered our ability to grow, to take on more capacity, to be more profitable,” he says.

But when it comes to what to do, Welson is focused on developing processes in his facility where “skilled (or not  so skilled) workers can be inserted, removed and positioned as needed.”

For WPI, thinking beyond the typical strategies is one way the company is looking to recruit workers. Olsen says the company reached out to the local Marine Reserve about the company’s needs in a way to attract new workers. They’ve also partnered with Lakeshore Technical College and NWTC in a four-year apprenticeship program where participants will attend classes and then come to WPI to gain on-the-job training in four key areas. After that, Olsen says WPI hopes to bring them aboard as full-time employees.

“It’s definitely an investment on our part. We’ll be paying them through their training and hopefully, at the end of it, they’ll want to stay and we’ll want them to stay,” he says. “We think this apprenticeship program is one of the best alternatives right now for us.”

WPI, which employs 240 at its two Green Bay area locations, had six welders on staff. Today, that number is 25 and Olsen says “we could easily use 10 more.”

Getting the job done without enough workers is clearly a challenge. Olsen says employees often work overtime and the company works with its customers to make sure they’re getting the work done on time.

“It’s really a careful orchestration. We don’t want to disappoint our customers,” Olsen says.
Rick Gill, president of PolyFab Inc., is also carefully walking that line. The Sheboygan custom thermoplastic injector molding supplier recently landed a major new customer, but he’s concerned how they’ll get all the work done.

“We’re so busy that we can’t even take the time to train people in-house. It’s just a frustrating situation, but we keep pounding the pavement looking for workers,” he says, adding there’s also sometimes a big disconnect between the skills people looking for work have with the skills, such as welding and machine tooling, that  he needs employees to have.

Financial incentives are another way WPI is looking to bring in new workers. The company offers a signing bonus for new workers and referral bonuses to employees who bring in other workers. “We’re willing to put money at risk to get good employees,” Olsen says.

Employers are also taking a longer term approach to finding talent or even looking within, says Christopher Matheny, vice president and chief academic officer at Fox Valley Technical College. In 2011, the college worked with 1,500 employers on customized training programs. Programs range from basic ones that help update skills while other ones go more in-depth.

“We can do a collaborative assessment with employers on their current work needs and then come up with a training program to fit,” he says. “We help them identify current workers or possibly students or individuals in the community who would benefit from skills upgrade and fit these roles. We can really create a strong pipeline of workers.”

Employers sometimes admit they don’t have time to train workers and Matheny says FVTC tries to help them address that issue by offering boot camp training programs that can get people on the job in a couple of weeks.

“We can also get very customized. For example, we created an online program for Pierce Manufacturing where employees can access modules as they get time and find out what they need to know,” he says. “Companies want training in a more effective format and we keep on working to get that done. Manufacturers don’t have time to waste.”