Signs of progress emerge for manufacturers searching for talent

Executives reflect on efforts to change industry perceptions


Every year, manufacturers use the month of October to highlight their industry and promote career opportunities, particularly to K-12 students. Whether it’s through school tours, promotional videos or contests, the industry tries to change perceptions of what modern manufacturing is about.

If the measuring stick is attracting more young people to work in manufacturing, the industry appears to be having some success. The percentage of Wisconsin’s manufacturing workforce under the age of 35 was 27.3 percent in 2017, up about 2.8 percentage points from 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

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Across all industries, 36.9 percent of Wisconsin’s workforce was under 35 in 2017, up just 0.4 percentage points from 2010.

Nationally, the percentage of manufacturing workforce under 35 increased 2.3 percentage points from 2010 to 2017. Wisconsin saw the 21st largest increase during that period. Maine, Michigan, Ohio, New Hampshire and Tennessee had the largest increases.

For a number of manufacturers, continuing to attract more young people to the industry requires continued engagement with the region’s educational systems and changing attitudes amongst parents.

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“We have to help them with providing guidance,” Tom Fotsch, chief operating officer of Waukesha-based EmbedTek, said of businesses relationship with schools. “It’s not just the kids, it’s the parents as well, to understand what are those opportunities because no one wants to say my daughter or son is not going to a four-year institution.”

Fotsch spoke with BizTimes during a roundtable discussion hosted by the professional services firm Sikich. He said he has been encouraging businesses to get parents included in tours of manufacturers.

Panelists at the Next Generation Manufacturing Summit

Aaron Jagdfeld, chairman, president and CEO of Waukesha-based Generac Holdings Inc., acknowledged at the BizTimes Next Generation Manufacturing Summit that even for him there is a hurdle to overcome when it comes to careers in the industry.

“I’ve got three kids,” Jagdfeld said. “If my kids wanted to go into manufacturing that would be great. I’d hope they’d want to go into finance or maybe engineering or maybe IT, but I don’t know if I’d be as crazy about them going out on the shop floor and that’s really the wrong mindset and I’ve got the wrong mindset as a parent.”

Fritz Reich, president of Reich Tool & Design in Menomonee Falls, said his own view on manufacturing careers has evolved over the last decade.

“I will be honest, at one point in time, especially during the Great Recession, I would have had a hard time saying to my kids, ‘Hey, I think you should get into manufacturing,’” Reich said during the Sikich roundtable. “I’ve completely changed that feeling and I fought like hell to make sure I did not feel that way because my whole life is manufacturing and I have a passion for it and I saw it going away.”

Jagdfeld said the reality is manufacturers in southeastern Wisconsin are competing against a number of other top companies for talent. Frank Carroll, CEO of Hartford-based Broan-NuTone, said companies have to figure out what they are going to be able to do differently.

“If you don’t know the professors, if you don’t know the teachers, if you don’t know the trade shop guys, then your company and your HR team is not doing that next level of tactic,” Carroll said.

Joy Duce, Sikich partner in charge of human resource consulting, said companies need to proactively build a pipeline of talent.

“We have to own who we are, we have to own specifically where we are going to recruit talent from and when we’re looking at that, we have to own our different strategies,” she said, noting some companies may be offering lower wages but great benefits while others pay well but do not have great offerings beyond wages.

Many public officials and industry supporters have taken to promoting manufacturing as no longer dark, dirty and dangerous. For many employers, that is the case as old factories have given way to brand new buildings, but there are parts of the industry where those kinds of changes do not come as easily.

“Ours is dark, dirty and dangerous,” said Phil Knoebel, CEO of Renaissance Manufacturing Group, which operates a foundry in Waukesha.

He said Renaissance compensates for the challenging aspects with higher wages and acknowledged it is a tough job and not every new hire works out.

“That’s the nature of our world,” he said.

Duce pointed out that with low unemployment and retiring Baby Boomers the battle for talent is an industry agnostic issue and potential employees have more opportunities than in the past. She said that reality makes it a good idea for manufacturers to start offering factory tours as early as middle school.

Many manufacturers have invested significantly in workforce development as the economy has expanded in recent years. While the prospect of an economic downturn at some point might prompt some businesses to reduce their investments, Fotsch said he doesn’t think companies will retract from engaging in the issue.

“There’s ebbs and flows and businesses that really look at the long term will continue to make those investments,” he said.

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