Practical solutions for Bridging the Skills Gap

The Wisconsin manufacturing sector has faced a shortage of available skilled workers for years. While public and private efforts have been made to address the underlying causes of the problem over time, many area companies are taking matters into their own hands to find immediate fixes.

A report recently compiled by Tim Sullivan, former Bucyrus International Inc. chief executive officer and Gov. Scott Walker’s special consultant for business and workforce development, made several recommendations to the state on ways to address the skills gap in manufacturing (see sidebar story). Many of those recommendations involve needed long-term educational and societal changes that will take time to manifest.

However, many manufacturers need more employees today and are hiring at an impressive pace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, Wisconsin manufacturers created 12,138 jobs from March 2011 to March 2012, making the industry No. 1 in net job growth.

Many manufacturers say they would hire more people, thus creating more jobs, if only they could find qualified candidates.

Some manufacturing companies are bridging the skills gap, finding solutions as they go and creating long-lasting training programs for their employees.

From soft skills such as teamwork and punctuality to specific technical skills such as welding and CNC machining, some manufacturers are rising to the challenge of preparing today’s industrial workforce.

Training for the future

The workforce at Milwaukee-based Monarch Corp. is aging, and president David Mitchell has had a difficult time finding skilled workers to replace them. Monarch has 70 employees at its Milwaukee location. It also has a 50-employee Chicago location called Production Tool Companies LLC.

Mitchell realized about three years ago that he needed the expertise of workers who will soon retire to train the candidates he finds to fill open positions.

“We need to start training our future workforce if we want to stay in business,” Mitchell said.

The applicants for welding and machining positions at Monarch, which makes large parts used in mining equipment, aren’t coming in with the skillset he needs, so Mitchell started a welder training program for new hires.

All potential new Monarch employees are brought on through a temporary staffing agency for 90 days before they are officially hired, to assure they fit in at the company and have the necessary soft skills, he said.

A welding trainee practices with Monarch’s top welders on practice plates and then moves into low-level production welds, Mitchell said.

Two years ago, he also started a program with Second Chance Partners for Education, a Pewaukee-based non-profit organization, which provides hands-on industrial experience for students that are struggling in a traditional high school setting but are receptive to learning practical manufacturing skills for future employment. Monarch is one of several area manufacturers that participate in the program.

Juniors and seniors in the Second Chance program spend part of the day in math and science courses that will help on a manufacturing career track, and then work to learn a trade in a manufacturer’s shop for the rest of the day.

“It’s a great program, obviously, and it’s really bringing trades and those skillsets for manufacturing back to kids who obviously are in high school and really not sure what they want to do with their lives,” Mitchell said. “Probably a lot of these kids wouldn’t graduate high school if it weren’t for Second Chance Partners. Whether they ultimately wind up working for me or whether they wind up working for somebody else, it’s still something I want to be a part of.”

Josh Willer is a senior at Menomonee Falls High School who is working at Monarch this year through Second Chance Partners. Willer is not a traditional classroom learner, but learning welding and other skills at Monarch have helped him get a hands-on education.

“I was not doing very well in school, and they asked me if I would like to go,” he said. “I’m really liking it. I’m cleaning up my act a lot.”

Willer said he hopes to go into manufacturing and continue his education in welding or machining.

Monarch has also been working with the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) and other local organizations on finding solutions to the skills gap.

There are dozens of programs in the area that help manufacturers bridge the talent gap, and Monarch is utilizing parts of five or six of them, Mitchell said.

“There isn’t a magic bullet. There’s no weapon that’s going to solve your problem of the skills gap,” Mitchell said. “It’s one more tool in our tool box.”

It’s up to individual manufacturers to seek out the programs that can help, or their businesses will struggle to remain viable, he said.

“We do have to take more initiative,” Mitchell said. “The programs that are being funded aren’t lacking in what they’re able to do for you. We kind of stumble upon these things as we try to figure out how to fix this problem.”

Monarch is struggling to find qualified employees just to keep up with attrition. Last year, Monarch hired 17 people but lost 15. This year, the company has hired 13 and lost 12. Mitchell said he would have liked to do more hiring over that time, but couldn’t find enough candidates.

“Through last year and this year we were trying to grow because we had a substantial amount of work,” he said. “The guys had a lot of overtime and it was taking a toll on them.”

Mining orders have leveled out, so Monarch has paused its growth, but Mitchell will continue to train students and employees alike to prepare for the future.

“All it does is simply limit the number of people we try to put through in a given year,” he said. “But you always have to have something going on.”

Develop a plan

Dickten Masch Plastics LLC in Nashotah also takes a patchwork approach to bridging the skills gap. Several key initiatives have been formed to target new employees, said Steve Dyer, president and CEO.

Led by Carl Lider, vice president of operations and a commander in the National Guard, Dickten Masch has been actively seeking veterans who are returning from deployment and are seeking employment.

Veterans often are very mechanically inclined, have a good work ethic, discipline and can execute well, all skills that are invaluable in a manufacturing environment, Dyer said.

“We have a whole lot of men and women who are returning,” he said. “Carl is the one that made us acutely aware of the power of veterans.”

The company also started focusing on its on-site training program in 2008, when Dyer arrived.

“We began to realize the importance of training our own internally,” he said. “We were facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and at the same time I had open requisitions for jobs we couldn’t fill.”

Both technical and leadership skills are emphasized for Dickten Masch’s 800 global employees, 310 of whom work in Waukesha County. Front line supervisors take leadership skills training at Waukesha County Technical College.

“There is a logical progression of demonstration of skills and application of skills that allow our employees to be able to come up the ladder,” Dyer said. “As they grow, we get better as an organization.”

In addition, the company has partnered with Second Chance, and Dyer helped form the Waukesha County Manufacturing Alliance, where he served on the steering committee.

The Alliance, which meets quarterly, aims to change the position of manufacturing from a fallback career to the first choice. It works with parents, students and educators to raise awareness of manufacturing career opportunities.

“Manufacturing, in and of itself, for a long time had a really bad stigma,” Dyer said. “Our reality is so different from that perception.”

Apprenticeships for the future

Waukesha-based Hydro-Thermal Corp. also is targeting high school students to generate interest in manufacturing.

The company recently started an apprenticeship program in cooperation with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development and Waukesha North High School. Two students take classes in the morning and work at Hydro-Thermal in the afternoon.

“We had a need for it and, like other manufacturers, we have difficulty finding folks that can run the CNC machines and can do the welding that we need,” said Mary Cohodes, marketing manager at Hydro-Thermal. “In the interest of trying to ensure that Wisconsin has skilled trades in the future … we decided that was one of the ways to go about it.”

The company has 67 employees and four open positions, two in the plant and two in sales and accounting. Hydro-Thermal has hired five people in the past year and often has interns learning its office roles.

The apprentice employees, juniors or seniors in high school, will learn welding, CNC and other job duties in two-month rotations for about 15 hours per week, said Glenn Kaisler, plant manager.

Even if the company doesn’t have a position open when the student graduates, the apprenticeship has at least exposed them to the manufacturing career path, he said.

“We are hoping that they like manufacturing and that they will stick with it and that we can hire them when they graduate,” Cohodes said.

Easing into the role

About 18 months ago, Menomonee Falls-based commercial kitchen equipment manufacturer Alto-Shaam Inc. started putting new hires in its research and development lab for their first 30 days with the company.

By working with the company’s lab technicians first, new employees can focus on learning skills from one-on-one expert mentors on similar equipment without getting tied up in the production process, said Randy Avrit, director of human resources at the firm.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that we need to train the skills into the individuals,” Avrit said. “There is certainly a lack of qualified skilled candidates in fabrication and welding.”

Avrit has hired about 15 people this year. The company has 325 employees.

To advertise its job openings, Alto-Shaam has implemented a referral program, in which existing employees receive a $250 bonus for bringing in a new employee.

The company also works with local high schools and the WCTC to make them aware of its job needs.

Reed Switch Developments Corp. in Racine, which makes magnetic reed switches used by original equipment manufacturers, is also targeting young potential employees. The company is working to expose high school students and the community to the industry, and participated in a regional manufacturing open house program called Manufacturing Day on Oct. 5.

“Manufacturing isn’t what it used to be in the old days,” said Debra Berns, owner and president. “It’s much more innovative. It’s not a dark, dreary place.”

Reed Switch Developments is developing an exporting program with the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership. Berns hopes to grow the company’s exports by 15 percent annually over the next three years.

The company has 16 employees and recently filled two open positions, she said.

“As we’re starting to grow, it’s hard to find qualified employees,” Berns said. “So many young people don’t think to go into manufacturing and there’s a lot of opportunities.”

Soft skills needed

Some manufacturers are willing to train employees in technical skills, but need a worker who has the right soft skills, such as punctuality and a positive attitude.

Matzel Manufacturing Inc., a complex casting and forging machining company in Milwaukee, has had trouble finding employees with technical skills that also have the drive and work ethic to succeed, said Brian Nuetzel, co-owner.

Nuetzel has integrated soft skills development into his training, meeting with employees and talking to them about teamwork and ethics.

“We want to build a team of people, and consequently we’ll take care of them,” he said. “When you have that nucleus, what you’re trying to do is get the right people in now. Maybe young eager kids that are easier to mold with the work ethic.”

Nuetzel hopes to hire 20 employees in the next year and a half, and has been trying to train people with whatever options are available. Matzel has also taken advantage of training partnerships with local technical colleges.

“We do unofficial on-the-job training and cross-training with our employees,” Nuetzel said. “When you can do the book training as well as the on the job training where you turn theory into actuality, that’s really the best training to have.” n

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Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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