Addressing the Skills Gap

A high-powered panel of manufacturing executives discuss how they’re dealing with the shortage of adequately-trained workers.

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From the October 2014 issue.

Skills Gap Panel Discussion at Century College, White Bear Lake, Minnesota

MnSCU hosted five Manufacturing Showcases this fall that focused primarily on how Twin Cities manufacturers are coping with the growing shortage of workers who are qualified to operate in the industries’ increasingly sophisticated environments. More than 100 people attended the session at Century College on September 23rd which included a presentation of the State of Manufacturing® poll results by Bob Kill, president and CEO of Enterprise Minnesota, and a lively panel discussion. This is an abridged version of their discussion.

Panel participants

Q: What keeps you up at night?
Pendleton: It’s finding talent. It’s finding qualified workers. It’s finding the next idea to make sure that we’re creating multiple relationships to ensure that people are coming in the door. In our business, since we’re staffing for multiple industries, we’ve got hundreds of openings. It’s about creating a valuable environment and it’s about creating valuable connections. We have to be innovative and make sure that we’re protecting the manufacturing sector, not just now but in the future.

Peterson: Certainly No. 1 is finding good talent. And I stress good because there is good talent out there. I come from Medtronic. At Medtronic it was easy to find good talent. All I had to do was put jobs on Medtronic.com and people came a-running — because Medtronic has a great name, especially in the Twin Cities. And then I go to Heraeus, and people said, “who?” Hereaus world wide is German owned – 15,000 employees worldwide, truly a global company — but it’s one of those companies you’ve never heard of and likely won’t unless you meet someone like me. It’s something I battle.

Sometimes I talk out of both sides of my mouth when it comes to education, but now I find myself telling people, “manufacturing is not dead, contrary to what you hear in the media.” I can prove it. We have an addition going on, as we speak. Also, there are a lot of good jobs that don’t need a four-year degree. I have hired people who got their four-year degree and then decided they didn’t want to be a graphics designer. They want to work on the manufacturing floor. I love to hire folks who want to make stuff. There are some really good jobs with a two-year degree.

Tapani: As a business owner who is part of supply chain, I supply large manufacturers. So it concerns me when I hear about Lockheed Martin leaving Minnesota or 3M moving some of their operations from Minnesota. I’d like to see more large manufacturers come back to Minnesota because we do have a very strong supply chain. But I’m concerned about the constant conversation about how we can’t move forward because of the lack of skilled workers. That isn’t a very attractive way to attract organizations to the state. Who’s going to want to open up a large manufacturing facility in central Minnesota if they don’t have workers? From an economic development standpoint, this is an issue that has to be solved, or at a minimum, we have to start having a conversation about it.

I am someone who has started to change my thinking about the skilled worker shortage. I’ve been involved in this endeavor of trying to get more people attracted to our industry for quite a few years. But I reached a point where I grew tired of going to meetings on economic development and expansion and hearing people say, I would have grown my company, but I couldn’t find anybody to hire. We’re entrepreneurs. We’re innovators. I honestly do not imagine sitting in my company and saying I could have doubled the size of my company, but nobody came to apply and I couldn’t find any skilled workers. I probably do need to take credit as the person who said, “stop whining,” and solve this problem.

Roach: The media is what keeps me up at night. How many people in here believe that the printing industry is dying? I can tell you that printing business cards and books is dying, but in terms of flexible packaging, it has never been better. What student coming out of high school and college will want to set up a 40-plus year career in printing? Because they hear that printing is dying. Getting the message out has been very, very difficult. It’s something that I struggle with every day.

Q: What’s the best non-traditional, innovative advice you have for Century College? If we were to poll most of our students here today, I don’t think many of them would say, I think manufacturing is cool and it’s a career I want to get into.

Tapani: Manufacturers have to get better at personal branding. I’m talking about branding your leaders as well as your corporation. It is unfamiliar to us and sometimes we’re a little worried about it. Even using the word “cool” about manufacturing. I have two teenage daughters; I can assure you that no one uses the word “cool” anymore. We have to use the language that young people are using. It is better to show them and let them engage in things. As youth can engage in things they find are interesting and enjoyable, that is where passion can develop. That’s partly why removal of technical education in high schools created such a problem for us. People have no way to know they would ever have passion around that. Even someone like me: I am a graduate of the Carlson School, but I also have gone to technical school to learn welding. So just because you are a graduate of the Carlson School doesn’t mean you can’t also engage in a technical education and benefit from it.

Pendleton: Talking about essential skills, soft skills, employment readiness – that would be one area in which a very strong focus would be helpful. Helping people understand why it’s important to be on time, what it means to have the work ethic. We can’t take it for granted that people have to have an understanding about what it takes to be successful in the workplace. Having an emphasis on that will create a larger pool of people who we would consider to be great potential employees for careers we know are exciting. I’ve got a client who has a laser operator who made $96,000 last year — partly because there was so much overtime that was needed to keep that machine running. But let’s face it, if you’ve got the essential skills, but you can’t make it to work, that’s not going to do much good.

Bolton: Over the years, I’ve been saying, stop whining and start creating your own training program and get the most out of your entrepreneurial spirit. That’s a key connection with the colleges. Be a catalyst. Help create those training programs. Manufacturers say, we not only need the skills, but we have to have these people coming out of high school understand what it means to be a good employee. That’s an issue as well.

Peterson: I was recently on an email distribution list, where somebody had started a discussion on the 10 things you’d like to see in a student coming out of high school. They were all simple: come to work, don’t do drugs. But there are a lot of students who just need to be told those things.

Q: It is often the parents we find who need to be sold on manufacturing careers as being stable. Parents want their child to go to the Carlson School of Management. What’s your wow factor for recruiting parents?
Bolton: I’ve been in manufacturing a lot of years. I’ve never seen the product be all that cool. To me it is more about enticing your children by saying, if you are someone who works on a CNC or an injection molding machine, guess what, you’re saving lives. You’re part of the solution. You’re keeping planes in the air. You’re making parts that go into people’s bodies and keep them alive. You are making things that have real meaning in life. The generation that’s coming up has a feeling that they want to contribute. Maybe its not that cool, but you are really contributing to society.

Peterson: I’ve been amazed at the number of smaller manufacturers that you may not have heard of, but that have a lot of interesting stuff going on from a career standpoint. Heraeus is not that small. We have about 400 people here in White Bear Lake. You come in and you can actually do stuff. You can have an impact on the business, whether that is on the production floor up to the director of human resources. The amount of impact you can have on the business is significant, compared to a lot of larger companies.

Tapani: When we open up our doors and invite our community in, oftentimes we talk about how we developed a passion for our industry. In my case, I’m a Carlson School graduate. When I graduated, I was in a leadership program at one of our local banks. I eventually worked my way into international trade finance. I found it super glamorous. I’m travelling all over the country, calling on the large corporations that were exporting their products and talking to them about how they can do that better. I was calling on large manufacturers which gave me exposure to manufacturing and I realized it was something I was really interested in.

When I had a chance to become the owner of Wyoming Machine, I quickly realized that the employees who worked on my shop floor made almost twice as much money as I made in working international trade finance at a large bank. That was a real eye opener. They were doing important work, making products that were literally changing the world and making it a better place to live. But they also made way more money than people in service industries. Once parents realize that their kid can go to school and maybe they’ll get a job at one of the wonderful service companies here in Minnesota. But if you want to earn a wage that you can support a family on, and have boats and snowmobiles and motorcycles, you are going to have a better chance in manufacturing than you will in other careers.

Roach: We need to partner more with our local institutions because they are struggling to get students to come here. I was on a panel here to discuss how they start a maintenance worker degree. How many parents want their kids to go to Century to become a maintenance person? They need to put a title on it that sounds better. We’ve got to partner more. If you’re going to wait for kids to come here and then come to your front door, you are going to be waiting a long time. Working with Century or other institutions is very important.

Stevens: I went into manufacturing with a four-year degree. Part of that is the prestige factor. In general, manufacturing has to sell prestige. There is a lot of competition about which way to go in life. You have to get in early. And you have to sell prestige. The other thing I would sell is that you’re not going to be strapped with $50,000 or $100,000 in student loans if you are taking a path to a two-year degree. I would say, do what you think is best, but know that there are options other than just a four- year degree. With that in mind, with a two-year degree, you’ll realize things about liberal arts. You don’t really need an art history class to go in and run a machine.

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