Many Michigan manufacturers are facing a problem that they call a “skill gaps.” As more and more of their skilled employees retire, manufacturers need new workers to operate advanced technologies. And unfortunately, they say, very few new workers have the education or experience to fill in, leaving hundreds of jobs unfilled. But there’s hope. Kalamazoo Valley Community College is trying out a new program that’s connecting employers with young students to fill the pipeline again.
Manufacturing has long had a two-faced identity. Joshua Iocca, the director of manufacturing at Kalamazoo’s Flowserve, knows the image most people have. Manufacturing is a solid way to make a living, he says. But a lot of people still see it as nasty, dirty work.
“Growing up, I don’t remember hearing about manufacturing as a desirable job," Iocca says. "My idea of working in manufacturing was the old factory. The old pictures of automotive factories, rats on the floor, water dripping through the ceiling...”
But then Iocca walks along the manufacturing floor of Flowserve. He points to the robotics and stainless steel instruments.
“It’s a nice clean environment," he says. "Climate controlled. It's definitely not anything like what I expected until I got here."
"But it’s hard to get people in the door.”
The problem Iocca’s talking about is one faced by manufacturers across the state. Manufacturing has transformed, he says. It’s technology-driven now. He says that should be appealing to workers who don’t want to just push buttons.
But it also requires his workers to learn specific skills, like CNC machining, to operate these instruments. And right now, manufacturers say, there simply aren’t enough.
"So who do we find with these skill-sets?" says Julie Parks, the director of workforce training at Grand Rapids Community College.
Parks says during the 2008 recession, manufacturers didn’t invest in finding new talent who could handle these new jobs.
"So now you have these groups of people that have been great technicians for years. Well, they they’re getting ready to retire. They can retire, because their 401K is better," she says. "Now, there’s nobody behind them, because we didn’t invest in these apprentices. And now there’s nobody! So, oh my gosh, now we have this skills shortage."
Parks says manufacturers know they can’t wait around for students anymore. So now, they’re taking a new approach. Manufacturers are going to college and paying for student’s educations as a way to ensure they can hire them later on.
The latest example is Kalamazoo Valley Community College, which joined the statewide Michigan Advanced Technician Training Program, or MAT2. The program itself is actually based on a German program of apprenticeships.
The idea behind it is this: students are recruited shortly out of high school for the program. They spend eight weeks in the classroom, learning CNC machining. Then eight weeks on the job at a manufacturer. Then back to the classroom, then back to the job. They alternate for a total of three years, and by the end of the program, they have a CNC Machinists' degree.
Tom Buszek, the dean of Business and Industrial Trades at KVCC, says it's an appealing pitch to a student. They get a degree, a guaranteed job out of school, and their future employer pays for all of their college tuition.
As for employers, the selling point is they get a guaranteed workforce with the right skills for the job.
"And immediately, we thought this is the opportunity for us to invest in new talent," says Flowserve's Iocca. "It will give them an opportunity for them to get an education. And we will develop a new pipeline of talent. Something that will be more sustainable."
However, as you might imagine, the program is still a tough sell. Can an employer handle paying $20,000, just to secure a qualified worker?
"That’s the scary part," Iocca says. "But if you take somebody that's highly efficient off their machine to train someone that's green for six months, or three months, that’s a lot of money. And we believe that with all the analysis we’ve done, that the return on the investment on this will outweigh the alternative we've been doing."
So on its surface, the program sounds good: new workers for companies, guaranteed jobs and no debt for students. But even at KVCC, those incentives aren’t making enough of a difference.
KVCC's Buszek says the MAT-squared program needs about 15 students to sustain itself. But right now? It’s only has six.
"We probably need about three times the number of students we had the first go around," Buszek says.
So if this program doesn't solve the "skills gap," what will? GRCC's Parks says she expects it’s going to take investment even earlier -- like elementary school.
"We have to figure out a way to expose students to different careers," she says. "Becuase those people in first grade, those first grade students, what we’re training them for doesn’t exist today."
Parks says by doing things like bringing robotics labs into elementary schools, manufacturers can change their image. It may take 10 years, she says, but right now, it’s their only option.