Manufacturers seeking to change perceptions

Northeast Ohio manufacturers continue to face challenges when it comes to finding both the general and skilled labor needed to meet production demands.

Companies in this industry are facing a skills gap, which refers to the difference between the number of employees who are aging out of their jobs and the number of new job candidates ready and willing to take those positions. And that gap is significant.

According to a 2015 TeamNEO report that focused on Summit County manufacturing jobs, 72.5 percent of tool and die makers are older than 45, and the numbers are similar for industrial machinery mechanics, chemical plant and system operators, and more.

There are several conclusions drawn to explain why generations behind the baby boomers are shying away from careers in manufacturing. Among them is the idea that a misperception exists regarding what a manufacturing job looks like.

“I think manufacturing has an image issue,” says Jenny Stupica, a member of the executive committee of the board of directors for ConxusNEO and human resources manager for SSP. “It’s seen as low skill, an unsafe environment, low tech, none of which are true.”

To that end, William H. Gary Sr., executive vice president for Workforce, Community and Economic Development at Cuyahoga Community College, says more needs to be done to show the next generation of job candidates that manufacturing is a viable career path.

“… No longer is manufacturing the smokestack environment that I knew when I moved into the steel industry right after my undergraduate work,” Gary says. “Manufacturing is now very high-tech. And so, collectively, not only the community college but also the industry as a whole needs to collaborate more to market the benefits, the job opportunities and the wage opportunities that are associated with the manufacturing industry.”

Reaching people at a young age, showing them the available career options and even showing them what a modern factory floor looks like are commonly cited as incredibly important steps toward bridging the skills gap. Additionally, providing training and education options that help people learn the skills needed to both find work in the short-term and grow in a career over the long term are said to be key.

“For me, it’s the absence of the related instruction for apprenticeships,” says Randy Bennett, vice president of Automation Tool and Die Inc. “If you look at the curriculums that have existed in public schools, we’ve taken away from that over the past decades. We’ve not added to them. And all the life skills curriculum is gone — shop class, drafting, home economics, all of that. At the same time we’re in this boom of technology. And all the jobs are changing.”

Jason Scales, Ph.D., manager of educational services at Lincoln Electric, also says manufacturing jobs are changing, and so are the skills needed to fill those roles.

“If you look at welding technology, it’s changing,” Scales says. “We’re going into more automation. We’re developing new tools to be able to weld faster, safer and to have a better work environment for the welder. When all these technologies start to shift, what happens to the skill set and the amount of knowledge that that new worker has to have within that? “

Each of these individuals and their organizations — companies, colleges and associations — are taking steps to address what they see as the disconnect between job candidates and manufacturing careers. Here are some of the ways they’re doing that.

Taking action
To overcome the misperceptions that are keeping some job candidates away from manufacturing jobs, ConxusNEO is testing a way to match candidates to jobs based on skills instead of experience.

Stupica says while the perception is that there is a skill shortage, she’d position it more as an experience shortage. That prompted the implementation of TalentNEO and ACT WorkKeys, which is a test candidates take to grade their aptitude in basic skills that can be matched with jobs.

Candidates in Summit and Cuyahoga counties can take the free, proctored tests that assign scores to these aptitudes — reading for information, locating for information and math, for example. They can then search for jobs based on how well their scores in certain aptitudes match the scores assigned to jobs posted by employers.

“So you might have a person who has never set foot in a manufacturing environment who says, ‘I’m not going to bother to look for a job in manufacturing because I’m sure that’s not for me, I don’t have any experience.’ But yet their skill shows they have the capability of being successful in a manufacturing environment,” Stupica says. “It’s opened a whole new array of options for them that they previously wouldn’t have explored as far as finding jobs.”

At Automation Tool and Die, Bennett has used multiple methods to help the younger generations better understand the career opportunities that exist in manufacturing.

The company participates in manufacturing initiatives and hosted a private screening of the film “American Made Movie,” which the company says shows the positive impact of domestic manufacturing jobs on national and local economies. But most notably, this year the company is bringing back its apprenticeship program.

Working in partnership with Cuyahoga Community and Lorain Community colleges, the company coordinates related technical instruction in the hopes of training an untapped pool of talent for jobs in tool and die, industrial maintenance, CNC, machining and welding — the top five most in-demand jobs in Ohio, according to Ohio Means Jobs data.

The company will work with high school students in their junior or senior years, offering them summer, weekend and after-school jobs that provide exposure to the industry.

Once they graduate, they will work full time during the day and two evenings each week, as they take classes until they fulfill their 800 hours of related instruction that starts with basic math and ends with more advanced manufacturing concepts.
In his model, the employer pays for tuition and books.

“The student pays nothing,” Bennett says. “What we do, we’ll bring someone in. We’ll employ them for one year. Different companies do it different ways but we want one year of service so that we can see work ethic, commitment, capability, everything some might call soft skills. We would be taking that year to put them through a Manufacturing Foundations course to provide exposure to the company and manufacturing as a sector. And we would risk that cost 100 percent.

“But after year one if they’re deemed to be ready to go, we have a contract, and all it is is a repayment contract. So we’ll pay it 100 percent, all four years.”

He says the direct costs are not that high relative to the indirect costs that manifest as lost opportunity.
The company recently built a 102,000-square-foot facility. But in some cases it doesn’t have the people it needs to meet the capacity the new facility allows them to have.

“Right now we have more opportunity than we have capability,” he says, so the company is being very selective about what work it takes on in large part because it needs more people to do the work. The hope is that the apprenticeship program can solve that problem.

Partners in education
Educators are working to understand the needs of the manufacturing community to develop courses that prepare students for specific jobs with Northeast Ohio manufacturers.

One example is the Steelworker for the Future program, which is a result of a partnership between Cuyahoga Community College and ArcelorMittal. Gary says through this program, the curriculum developed and equipment used are aligned to build the specific skills needed to work at ArcelorMittal.

The four-semester program offers both general education as well as electrical and mechanical training, and includes an apprenticeship and on-site training.

“It’s an opportunity to not only align the community college’s programs with the industry sector, but through the collaboration we can actually design the programs that companies like ArcelorMittal require in order to have a productive workforce,” he says.

Cuyahoga Community College has similar programs with Automation Tool and Die, Vitamix Corp., Oatey and Nestlé, to help prepare candidates to fill their jobs. It has also purchased two mobile units that house state-of-the-art equipment and classrooms to perform on-site training at employers’ locations.

While many employers and educators have become partners in workforce development, one company is filling the role of both.

Lincoln Electric will open its $30 million Welding Technology Center, designed to help train the industry and workforce in new welding technologies in the fourth quarter.

Scales says the main focus will be on training the trainer programs, creating more certified welding inspectors and educators, and working with more welding educators to make sure they have the skills to pass on to incoming and current workforces as new technology comes into the industry.

“And that’s really the main component of that new welding school is that we want to be training the trainers and really be a knowledge transfer center for industry here at Lincoln Electric,” he says.

It will facilitate localized training within regions, working with teachers and others who teach welding, offering welding educator workshops, some of which deal specifically with training younger generations.

The war for talent today doesn’t reside within the borders of a single industry. Multiple job sectors are essentially looking for the same core talent and are competing for a share of the same labor pool.

Through collaboration and partnerships, manufacturers are finding ways to bridge the skills gap and dispel the negative preconceptions to showcase the opportunities that exist to the next generation of job candidates, and position the industry as an exciting place to spend a career.