Workforce Development: Region’s manufacturers collaborate to tackle talent challenges


For years, employers have used various strategies to build their talent pipeline: promoting STEM activities in schools, sponsoring meetups and hackathons, hosting interns, participating in transitional job programs and even hiring competitors’ employees.

But those strategies may no longer be enough in light of the region’s pressing workforce challenges, industry experts say. In a recent Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce survey, 75% of respondents reported having trouble finding workers.

“Some old methods for talent retention and attraction are no longer working in this new normal,” said Susan Koehn, vice president of Talent & Industry Partnerships at Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and Milwaukee 7 Economic Development Partnership. “Companies used to be able to deploy short-term solutions, like poaching from each other, to solve low unemployment. But that’s a zero-sum game right now when you think about it regionally. We need to grow the pool overall and better align with education so we don’t lose people.”

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That’s the driver behind the Talent & Industry Partnership, a new coordinated effort by MMAC and M7 to create connections among the K-12 and higher education sectors and area employers, upskill existing employees and recruit talent from outside the market. The partnership’s initial focus is on the manufacturing sector, but MMAC and M7 plan to expand its scope to other industries.

Underpinning the partnership is the idea that more can be accomplished if employers work together to address large-scale workforce shortages, rather than going at it alone.

The initiative traces back to initial conversations among about 30 of the region’s manufacturers in fall 2018, when Rockwell Automation and ManpowerGroup convened leaders to discuss their talent shortages and swap ideas about how to address them.

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“Every company is doing something in this regard; they are reaching out (to K-12) and considering innovative ways to partner with education and workforce development,” Koehn said. “But what they may not be doing is, in a systematic way, aligning all those arrows. This was designed to surface best practices of what everyone was doing.”

From those discussions, leaders agreed they need to reach students earlier in their education. By the time a student enters college, it’s likely too late to lure them into manufacturing, Koehn said.

In fall 2019, the partnership launched CareerX, a year-long pilot program that has connected 12 manufacturers with teachers from area high schools so they can better inform their students about career opportunities. The program takes teachers to participating manufacturers’ sites – including Astronautics Corp. of America, Diversitech, Komatsu Mining Corp., Sargento Foods and others – for a half-day “immersive experience” to build positive perceptions of manufacturing and connect what’s taught in the classroom with what’s happening on the shop floor.

Done right, the program is designed to turn teachers into “ambassadors for the industry,” Koehn said.

“It’s a heavy lift to build one-to-one partnerships with a school and take in students and provide experiences and maintain that relationship,” Koehn said. “So (companies) realized if they could find efficiencies and find economies of scale … that was the real value proposition. If we reach teachers first, and impart this exciting information about potential careers in manufacturing, then we could reach many more students as those teachers over the years have multiple classrooms and reach that many more students.”

As southeastern Wisconsin continues to attract new investment, programs like CareerX will play an important role in addressing workforce challenges, said John Koetz, president of surface mining at Komatsu.

“MMAC and M7 are doing a great job bringing companies together to tackle these concerns, leading the way to collaborative solutions that offer greater potential than single-company initiatives,” Koetz said. “We believe the efforts to make Greater Milwaukee a region of choice, enhance manufacturing opportunities through CareerX, and ongoing work to address the ‘sidelined workforce’ are all essential to our region’s growth and success, for all businesses and industries.”

The program’s effectiveness will, in part, be determined by how many students go on to enroll in additional manufacturing or engineering-related coursework or pursue employment in the industry, Koehn said.

In addition to courting new employees straight out of K-12, another focus of the Industry & Talent Partnership is to help area employers upskill existing employees. MMAC, M7 and area business leaders are developing a pilot program that would pool employers’ resources to upskill their employees.

For New Berlin-based Pindel Global Precision, a mid-sized manufacturer, onboarding and upskilling employees can be a challenge. Because the company doesn’t bring on new employees in bulk or upskill many employees at once, it’s difficult to train them efficiently.

“When you think about all the small- and medium-sized manufacturing companies in the region, they are a lot like Pindel,” said chief executive officer Bill Berrien. “It really can be a burden to train your own people.”

Through the MMAC/M7 partnership, Berrien is working with other employers to coordinate upskilling training opportunities across the region. Under the pilot program, small- and mid-sized manufacturers could send their one or two employees to receive training alongside employees from other companies.

While companies will continue to compete, the severity of today’s workforce challenges necessitates new levels of collaboration, Berrien said.

“As an employer interacting quite frequently with other employers, I think we’ve all been coming to the realization that none of us can do this alone,” he said.

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