Ariens has model to bridge Wisconsin’s skills gap

Over the years, I’ve spent considerable time writing and reporting on the manufacturing skills gap. It remains a topic of concern for the industrial sector in Wisconsin as business, education and political leaders continue to work to develop solutions to a problem that stems from manufacturers struggling to fill open jobs while thousands of unemployed workers search for employment but don’t have the necessary skills to make them immediately viable candidates.

During the course of my coverage of the topic, Dan Ariens, president and chief executive officer of privately held Ariens Co., a Brillion-based outdoor power equipment manufacturer, has been held up as an example of a top-level leader who is taking noteworthy steps in dealing with the issue.

Ariens is more than willing to share the story of how his company, over the course of many years, has dealt with the situation. He will deliver the keynote address and also will take part in a break-out session at the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s Manufacturing Matters! Conference on Feb. 28 in Milwaukee.

Getting students to develop problem solving skills has been essential in the success Ariens has exhibited in attracting key talent.

“We need to educate kids on how to solve problems versus teaching them a skill. That can be done in our plant,” Ariens said.

Educational systems, from high schools to technical schools and universities, aren’t broken but are in need of greater focus, he added.

“What keeps getting missed is that local business that are connected with their high schools, technical schools or university systems need to get much more engaged in those schools and in curriculum support so that it’s hands on, minds on,” Ariens said.

Way too often, students are are delivered the message that they need to go to college so that they can avoid working in a factory, he said.

“There’s a large population that isn’t built for advanced education and who’d much rather work with their hands and solve problems in an environment like manufacturing,” said Ariens. “Teachers keep telling kids that you don’t want to get stuck in factory. We’ve got to get over that. We want them to think that this could be a great opportunity.”

Manufacturers need to go beyond addressing their immediate skills needs on the factory floor and focus more on the long term, Ariens said. Again, he stressed the need to get younger people to develop problem solving skills, which will make them more viable employees.

A key aspect in Ariens’ efforts has come through a major investment to build a technology and education center at Brillion High School. The partnership between Ariens and the school began six years ago.

“It’s not just about the infrastructure that we built, it’s about the attitude and the mindset,” Ariens said. “We really integrate with the school’s manufacturing and technology educator, who creates projects through the full term that will engage the kids.”

As part of the initiative, Ariens places its manufacturing and engineering staff into the classroom several times a year. The company also brings Brillion school students to its manufacturing plant.

“We’ll actually get them engaged in a real live product development process,” said Ariens, who has been with the company since 1983 and has served as president and CEO since 1998. “We have snow blowers on the market today that have parts designed by these high school kids. It’s sort of a live curriculum.”

Since the program began, students and parents alike have developed a more energized attitude toward manufacturing, Ariens said.

“Kids want to come work for Ariens,” he said.

Having prospective employees see the plant in operation is a huge benefit for the company, which has about 1,800 employees globally, including 850 in Brillion, Ariens added.

“If we can get them here, they know they are in a different place,” he said. “It’s very high-paced and its hard work. I don’t want to shy around that. But for people who want to come to work every day at a good company, those are the people we are able to recruit.”

Ariens wants to share his success story with other employers for the benefit of the entire industry.

“We get a lot of educators and chambers of commerce that call us, but individual businesses don’t call,” he said. “Frankly, I wish they would. I wish they would say what are you doing that we could do in Middleton or in Rhinelander. But they don’t. I think businesses assume that what we’ve done is all about the building and the money we spent to build it. It’s really not. It’s much more about the mindset and creating an environment where educators and parents understand that Ariens is a great place to work.”

Rich Rovito is the industry reporter at the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP).

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