Talent pipelines are more than just buzzwords among West Michigan companies looking to bolster their workforce development activities.
While many employers in the region’s manufacturing sector have designed their own in-house training programs, companies are also increasingly turning to higher education institutions to keep those pipelines filled.
“I’ve never seen employers be more involved (in workforce development) or put more money on the table,” said Julie Parks, director of workforce development at Grand Rapids Community College.
Currently, much of Parks’ work is geared toward both the manufacturing and construction trades, where employers are finding difficulty with both staffing needs in the short term, as well planning for the long term.
Those long-term challenges, sources say, are related to West Michigan’s aging workforce. That age problem is coupled with the perception that the younger generation just now coming into the workforce is less inclined to go into manufacturing or the construction trades. Executives from a number of companies said they are starting to see large numbers of aging workers retire.
“We don’t have enough people to come in and take their place,” said Paul Lemley, a senior vice president at Triangle Associates Inc., a Grand Rapids-based construction firm. “Even if the business doesn’t grow, we don’t have enough people to replace (the people retiring).”
That challenge has led a number of area construction companies to collectively pool resources and work together. Earlier this year, three different associations — Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), Home Builders Association of Greater Grand Rapids (HBAGGR) and the American Subcontractor Association of Michigan (ASAM) — formed the Construction Workforce Development Alliance (CWDA).
“In the construction industry, things have changed and there is demand for workers and skills,” said Norm Brady, president and CEO of the ABC West Michigan chapter. “To bridge the gap, (construction industry groups) are looking to go at this together.”
Recently, the alliance announced 19 scholarships as part of its “Jumpstart Program.” The scholarships will offer GRCC students a free three-week, full-time program that helps them learn basic skills needed for the construction trades such as work safety, reading blueprints and operating equipment and tools.
The scholarships are valued at $26,000, said Ben Wickstrom, president of Ada-based Erhardt Construction Co., a member of the alliance.
The curriculum for the program was based upon the immediate needs of the industry and built upon programs already in existence at GRCC, Wickstrom said.
The development of the curriculum is somewhat of a challenge for the school, said GRCC’s Parks. Whereas organizations such as Michigan Works! are entirely employer-driven in terms of the training offered, GRCC operates a bit differently.
“Employers’ (needs) are important, but we have the job of looking out for people also,” Parks said. “We need to give people the skills they need.”
A gap in manufacturing
The issue of both short- and long-term staffing needs in the West Michigan construction trades and a pivot toward higher education partnerships is almost identical to the issues occurring in the manufacturing sector.
Across the board in Michigan, manufacturers are saying they can’t find enough people to fill their job openings.
“In Michigan, the engineering economy has been doing very well,” said Mohamad Subhi Qatu, director of the School of Engineering and Technology at Central Michigan University. “All of our (constituents) say they want more engineers.
Ultimately, the general message is that they are not finding as many as they need.”
Of the engineers that CMU does graduate — typically around 70 per year — the employment rate is at just about 100 percent, Qatu said. The Mount Pleasant-based university holds career fairs each year for students, as well as maintains professional relationships with regional companies such as Midland-based Dow Chemical and Gentex Corp. in Zeeland.
The career fair is a common tool universities use to get students directly in front of top employers. Given the current demand for engineers, Michigan State University’s College of Engineering has taken an innovative approach to its career fair strategy by getting students engaged with potential employers as soon as possible.
MSU holds a “non-career” career fair during its annual Engineer’s Week, held each March when approximately 130 employers and 1,300 freshman and sophomore students descend on the halls of the Center for Spartan Engineering, as
MiBiz has previously reported. While they still have a number of years to go before graduating and entering the workforce, the students are encouraged to “ask every dumb question you’re told not to ask at a (traditional) career fair,” Garth Motschenbacher, MSU’s director of corporate relations for the engineering school, said at the time.
Employers at MSU’s engineering event ranged from technology giants such as Google and Microsoft to automotive OEMs and both large and small suppliers.
“It’s not important that (students) get a job as a freshman,” Motschenbacher said of the school’s philosophy of getting young students engaged with exploring employment options. “It is important that they start the engagement process.”
Institutions and companies alike are beginning to see value in engaging with students at young ages as a means of fulfilling those talent pipelines. Another program still in the early stages on the lakeshore is Connections.
Connections operates as a collaboration of Holland-area companies such as Herman Miller Inc., Haworth Inc. and Gentex Corp., to name a few. The program also brings in the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District (OAISD), economic development agency Lakeshore Advantage and the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce.
The program aims to blend classroom learning with hands-on experience at participating companies. Students begin the program as young as sixth grade. Much of the program is designed around the idea that employers need to fill talent pipelines, but it can be difficult to maintain relationships between companies and schools as people in key positions move on or retire. Connections seeks to lessen the importance of having personal relationships between internship coordinators and hiring managers and instead institutes a framework for companies to engage with schools in a repeatable process so that students are engaged in the world of modern industry from a young age.
The program also offers a “13th grade” that allows students to attend an extra year and then earn an associate degree from Grand Rapids Community College.
While employers, educators and state leaders say that employment and bridging the “skills gap” is of the utmost importance, recent data aren’t quite so full of doom and gloom. A March report released by The Brookings Institute shows the Grand Rapids-Wyoming metropolitan statistical area (MSA) fares quite well for employment for young people.
In 2012, the MSA ranked number 11 in the top 100 metro areas for employment for people between the ages of 20-24. The employment rate was at 72.9 percent at the time. That said, the MSA was number three for the same age group in 2000, with an employment rate of 79.4 percent.
Soft skills important, too
There is no doubt that manufacturing and construction companies are looking for people who are highly trained and possess technical skills. However, one area program — partially funded by area colleges such as GRCC — aims to assist employees and employers with softer skills.
The Source, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit made up of West Michigan member companies, seeks to offer training opportunities for less technical jobs. Founded in part by Butterball Farms Inc. CEO Mark Peters, The Source allows workers the rare opportunity to work at a company that is training them while the company itself knows full well that the employee probably won’t stay there for the long term.
“We are part of a fluid labor market,” Peters said. “If you don’t train, you’re hurting your own business, and if they want to leave, they will.”
A program such as The Source is beneficial for Butterball Farms because the company does not require hard, technical skills for many of its entry-level jobs, Peters told MiBiz. Therefore, Peters has no problem taking in low-skilled workers, providing training and education and helping build them for a career at another company, such as the automotive supplier Pridgeon & Clay Inc., also a member of The Source.
Eighty percent of The Source’s funding comes from participating member companies, while the rest is made up from grants, including many from colleges such as GRCC, Peters said. The program costs Butterball approximately $30,000 to $40,000 annually.
Where The Source provides value is that some of the employees could work in lower-skilled positions at companies such as Butterball Farms while also training for more technical work, Peters said.
“There is not much difference between what a worker knows the day before he gets a degree compared to the day after,” he said.