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Manufacturing Firms Scour Schools, Military for Future Workforce

Enticing newcomers into the field often means teaming up with community colleges to offer training programs while some manufacturers are turning to military veterans to fill the void.
May 19, 2012
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Mark Clark bucked a trend, leaving his service-oriented job as an optician to train for a manufacturing position.

Manufacturing executives are hoping more workers follow in Clark's footsteps, forgoing jobs in the service sector to work on the factory floor, where—according to a survey Deloitte Consulting and the Manufacturing Institute conducted last year—600,000 jobs went unfilled.

While many think the main issue for U.S. manufacturers is competition from nations such as China and Mexico, the bigger problem might be right here at home where manufacturers must contend with a severe shortage of skilled workers.

"I did a complete 180 with my career," says Clark, 33, who is now a process technician with Bayer Corp. in Baytown, Texas. "My father was in manufacturing and I saw the lifestyle he was able to provide for our family. It's a more stable career."

Two decades ago many manufacturers moved operations offshore, with the decision based primarily on cost, says Mike Brown, senior director of talent acquisition for technology and manufacturing giant Siemens.

In recent years, priorities have shifted. "Old-school assembly doesn't really exist anymore. Now you need a more sophisticated labor force," Brown says. "It's software that drives the line. If something goes wrong, it's no longer a wrench that you grab. It's a laptop or iPad."

The challenge is finding workers with those skills. The problem is so critical that, of the more than 1,200 manufacturing executives surveyed last summer, two-thirds reported a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers, and 56 percent predicted the shortage would get worse in the next three to five years, according to the Deloitte and Manufacturing Institute report, Boiling Point? The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing.

The shortage of skilled workers has prevented nearly three-quarters of survey respondents from expanding their operations or improving their productivity, the report found, and 5 percent of job vacancies—or 600,000—remain unfilled.

While more than 12 million Americans are unemployed, the vast majority lack the skills to fill these roles. In some cases, manufacturers are taking matters into their own hands and devising ways to draw newcomers into the field. Often that means teaming up with community colleges to offer training programs so new employees can hit the ground running. Others are turning to military veterans to fill the void.

The roots of the problem date back to the 1990s when service jobs took precedence over manufacturing careers, says Mark Tomlinson, executive director of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. "There was a change in focus in educational institutions away from 'vo-tech' education."

As interest in technical skills waned, high school and community college training

programs were abandoned or scaled back, Tomlinson says, and university educations were considered a must.

At the same time educational priorities shifted, and manufacturing became more high-tech. While companies have been able to train their existing employees to handle those jobs, 80 percent of Deloitte survey respondents expect their workforces will be hard hit by retirement in the coming years.

Siemens is among the many manufacturers striving to address the problem. The company, which operates in a wide range of industries including energy, health care and infrastructure, has more than 2,500 vacancies across the United States.

One of Siemens Energy's key facilities is a gas and steam turbine plant in Charlotte, North Carolina, which doubled in size to more than 1 million square feet last year. When it's fully operational, the plant will have about 1,800 employees.

To address employment needs, Siemens is borrowing a tactic from its homeland in Germany by introducing apprenticeships, Brown says. "We're looking at ways to replicate in an American environment some of the best practices from the [German] apprenticeship program."

The company has started to train select high school seniors through a Central Piedmont Community College program specifically tailored to meet Siemens' needs. "They get an education and an immediately applicable skill set," Brown says.

Siemens covers the cost of students' educations, and the students receive a paid internship and the promise of a job after graduation.

The company also is turning to military veterans to help meet hiring needs. Siemens works with Orion International, a military recruiting firm, to bring veterans into the fold.

Veterans often are recruited for field-service technician positions, where they do things such as servicing and maintaining wind turbines. The technicians work alone or in two-person teams, and must be able to operate independently, solve problems and work with complex equipment. "These jobs are tailor-made for veterans," Brown says.

Siemens has pledged to fill 10 percent of its open positions with veterans; last year it far exceeded that promise, hiring more than 600 ex-service members.

Another company that has tapped into the veteran population is Peoria, Illinois-based Advanced Technology Services Inc., which performs maintenance on production equipment for companies such as Caterpillar Inc. and Dean Foods, says Holly Mosack, Advanced Technology's head of recruitment and a former Army captain. Although employees work in the facilities of other companies, they are on the Advanced Technology payroll full time.

The company works with military transition centers—set up to help veterans returning to civilian life—to find new hires. Mosack says nearly 30 percent of the company's 3,000 employees are veterans.

Advanced Technology has a Battle Buddy program that links newly hired veterans with those who have worked for the company longer term to help them make the transition.

The veterans have high technical skills and a sense of mission. "They understand urgency, which for us is everything," Mosack says.

Others, such as Bayer, have focused on training their own employees. Spokesman Bryan Iams says the Baytown material science facility produces chemicals used in a wide range of applications and employs about 1,000 workers.

Bayer is in fierce competition with energy giants such as BP and Exxon Mobil Corp. for employees, Iams says. In 2000, the company would have about 2,000 applicants for 20 or 30 new jobs; these days, 250 people apply, and many aren't qualified. Some jobs remain vacant for up to nine months. "We can't find candidates with the right skill match for the position."

So the company beefed up its relationships with local schools Lee College, Alvin Community College and San Jacinto College, focusing on process technology training and "to make sure students came out with the skill set aligned with our needs," he says.

Bayer also introduced a new internship program 18 months ago where students come to work for the company while still in school, earning $18 to $23 an hour, while gaining hands-on experience.

That's what drew Clark to Bayer. He was still working full time as an optician when he enrolled at San Jacinto College in 2009. Representatives of various companies would come in and offer seminars, which is where he learned about an internship program offered by Bayer.

After starting as an intern, Clark, who now has an associate's degree in process technology, was hired full time by the company in August. "I've got the job I wanted," he says.

Manufacturers hope other workers will feel the same way. If the employee shortage isn't addressed, Tomlinson says, "the economy will grow, but not to its potential."

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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