Mark Kaiser, president and CEO of Lindquist Machines in Green Bay, sees the future of manufacturing in a suite of classrooms at Green Bay West High School.
In rooms once reserved for shop classes, students learn the ins and outs of the manufacturing industry while running their own business, Bay Link Manufacturing.
“The students are learning technical skills and, more importantly, they are learning much-needed business skills,” he said.
Bay Link students, chosen from resumes submitted by students throughout the district, not only gain hands-on experience while serving real-world customers, they also earn high school and college credits through a partnership with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.
“It’s a three-legged stool – the school district, manufacturers and the college – all working together,” said Lori Peacock, education and counseling coordinator for the Green Bay Area Public Schools.
The precision manufacturing lab, which launched at the start of the 2014-15 school year, is just one of several programs in place around the state to help train the next generation of manufacturing workers.
With manufacturers struggling to find enough skilled workers to fill their current positions, combined with the looming wave of retiring baby boomers, such actions are necessary to help keep companies growing and strong, Kaiser said.
“The students are being exposed to what manufacturing is like in the 21st century,” he said. “Many people have the wrong perception of what manufacturing is.”
Convincing teens and young adults that manufacturing is a viable career is a must for the industry to succeed, Kaiser added.
Need is real
John Peterson of Schuette Metals in Rothschild just needs to look around at his employees to realize manufacturers face a worker shortage.
“There’s a lot of baby boomers out there and not a lot of younger people,” he said. “We did some strategic planning about a year and a half ago and realized we need more young employees if we want to continue to grow.”
For Peterson, the needs are greatest in welding, fabrication and machining. After talking with other central Wisconsin business owners, he realized they all faced the same problem. “We all need to work together to develop a pipeline to get younger people into this industry,” Peterson said.
Peterson joined with fellow metal manufacturers to form the Central Wisconsin Metal Manufacturing Association. While the local chamber of commerce sponsored its so-called “heavy metal tour” of area manufacturers for high school seniors, Peterson’s group wanted to start reaching out to even younger students. They organized tours for 3,000 junior high schoolers of businesses from Tomahawk and Rhinelander down through Wausau and Stevens Point and west to Marshfield.
“We got them inside our facilities and showed them what we do within our four walls,” Peterson said. “Manufacturers haven’t always done a good job of explaining what we do so we’re trying to change that.”
In addition to tours, there were discussions about job opportunities, quality of pay and the necessary training and education – some of which may be covered by the employer, leaving little or no college debt.
Many manufacturers realize that just attracting current students to their workforce isn’t enough, Peterson said. “We need to look at other solutions, options and partnerships,” he said. “We’re all working towards the same goal – having enough workers.”
One program that fits that model is an initiative launched last summer by Miller Electric Manufacturing in Appleton and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin. The goal is to train 120 welders by this coming summer, said Ed Panelli, global managing director of the automotive segment at Miller Electric.
The welding training initiative targets underemployed and unemployed men and women of all races who might otherwise be qualified for welding training programs, but lack the necessary soft skills to be successful. Training is offered at four sites in Wisconsin in cooperation with local technical colleges in Appleton, Green Bay, Wausau and Milwaukee. Program participants receive not only basic welding training, but also 60 hours of life skills training and support.
An Advanced Manufacturing Training Center is also in the works in northwest Milwaukee to help 400 people gain the skills they need to land jobs in advanced manufacturing. Local development officials want to offer workforce training programs for growing companies that are looking to train their current workforce, develop new products and improve manufacturing systems. Officials estimate it will create an additional $8.2 million in wages through higher-paid jobs.
“There’s a realization that manufacturers need workers with quality skills, and there are multiple programs out there trying to address those needs,” Kaiser said. “The industry’s future depends on our workforce.”