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Sunday, 12 May 2013 22:00

HELP WANTED: West Michigan manufacturers address talent shortage via new training programs

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West Michigan manufacturers such as John Kennedy’s Autocam Corp. turn to innovative training programs for solutions to persistent talent shortages. West Michigan manufacturers such as John Kennedy’s Autocam Corp. turn to innovative training programs for solutions to persistent talent shortages. PHOTO: JEFF HAGE

Madalyn Bueche, 19, graduated from Cedar Springs High School in 2011 never thinking she’d end up in a manufacturing apprenticeship program at Autocam Corp.

But with no plans to attend college, she instead attended an open house at the Kentwood-based manufacturer of precision automotive and medical device components to see what its apprenticeship program was all about.

“I didn’t think manufacturing was something that someone my age could look into for a career,” Bueche said. “After attending the open house, I realized that many companies were looking for younger kids like me and would be willing to help us out.”

Now Bueche works 25 hours each week at Autocam and takes three or four classes during the afternoons at Grand Rapids Community College via the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) program. Autocam pays her while working and also pays for her college classes.

“We are getting absolutely phenomenal people out of this program,” said John Kennedy, president of Autocam.

For the past couple of years, West Michigan employers have been reporting a critical lack of job candidates with the right technical skills, a gap that has been growing as the area economy heats up from the prolonged recession in the manufacturing sector.

AMP is one of several employer-driven initiatives available in West Michigan aimed at recruiting people who want to work in manufacturing and providing them with the training and educational tools they may have not received in high school or college.

Autocam workers in the AMP apprenticeship program start at $13 an hour while taking courses and can make more than $17 per hour by the end of the program.

In a few years, when Bueche earns her associate degree at GRCC, she’ll be eligible to pursue a bachelor’s degree in manufacturing engineering at Ferris State University. Autocam will pick up the tab for her undergraduate degree as well. Both programs are taught at the GRCC Applied Technology Center in downtown Grand Rapids.

“I wanted to go to school, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet,” Bueche said. “The AMP opportunity worked out perfectly for me.”

Kennedy said the AMP partnership has produced some valuable team members at Autocam.

“We found some of these individuals became great techs and wanted to go beyond an associate’s degree,” he said. “So we sent them to engineering school, and they came out with bachelor’s degrees. Now they have hands-on work experience as well as college experience. When they reach the top and become hot-shot techs, they’ll be making $30 an hour and travel the world to our other plants to fix problems.”

Tale of two years

Randy Thelen, president of Lakeshore Advantage, said this job skills gap is illustrated by the results of two recent employer surveys. In a 2010 survey of several dozen employers in the Holland/Zeeland area, only 20 percent reported they were having difficulty finding the talent with the skills they needed. In a 2012 survey, 64 percent reported talent recruitment was a major problem.

“Greater West Michigan has a shortage of skilled trades,” Thelen said. “Our manufacturing sector is growing at a rate outpacing the available people to fill these increasingly technical jobs. Demand is there. We’ve just got to make sure there is a supply to match that need.”

Starting in February, Lakeshore Advantage offered a pilot program with Comstock Park-based Expert Technical Training LLC to provide some basic skills classes at no charge to the participants. The goal of the program is to help area employers recruit factory workers.

After the trainees are hired, employers reimburse Expert Technical Training for the services provided. The service also screens job applicants for illegal drug use and makes sure they have a solid work ethic needed to perform today’s demanding manufacturing jobs.

The pilot program at Lakeshore Advantage offered two tracks: a production class to teach applicants core skills in factory automation, lean manufacturing, pneumatics, and hydraulics, as well as a second course in basic computer numerical control (CNC) machine tool operation.

Ryan Pohl, president of Expert Tech, said five of the 12 production class graduates have been placed at area companies so far, while all eight of the CNC class participants landed jobs.

Of the thousands of people who have come to Expert Technical Training in the five and a half years the company has been in business, only 100 have passed the preliminary screening and completed the training to date, Pohl said. Some fail the drug test. Others don’t have the drive to work hard.

“There are a lot of great people and good workers out there,” Pohl said. “They just need a bridge, a pathway into a new career. And that’s what we provide.”

But once the students move on from Expert Tech, they still need to perform in their new careers. Competition Engineering Inc. of Marne hired four students so far, and all have performed well, said General Manager Scott Leasure.

“They have enough training that they have a better understanding of how to interact with our machines than people we hire off the street,” Leasure said. “They have a big head start over those folks.”

Looking long-term

Certainly, programs like AMP and Expert Technical Training provide a short-term way to educate the labor force. But a group of West Michigan CEOs is seeking a more holistic approach to developing a workforce that meets their needs over the long term. The specifics were discussed on April 15 at a meeting of the Economic Club of Grand Rapids Inc. when members of nonprofit Talent 2025 Inc. spoke.

Talent 2025’s vision is to transform West Michigan into a globally recognized top 20 region in the United States over the next 12 years. They want West Michigan to become a magnet for skilled talent that might migrate to bigger metropolitan areas such as Chicago, but the group also desires to attract technically savvy workers from around the country.

President Kevin Stotts said Talent 2025 wants to increase the number of post-secondary credentials — associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, professional certifications — from the current 34 percent of the labor force to 64 percent by 2025.

“Specifically, we want to catalyze an integrated talent system more responsive to the needs of employers,” Stotts said. “Today’s kids aren’t aware of the opportunities in manufacturing. Today’s manufacturing environment is high-tech, high-growth and environmentally clean. It’s not what it was 20 years ago.”

As economist George Erickcek of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research pointed out during the Economic Club event, retaining, training and attracting tomorrow’s workforce is vital to the continued growth of the West Michigan economy. His analysis projects 6,000 new jobs will be created in the regional workforce in each of the next six years. Most of these jobs will require post-secondary degrees or advanced training.

Erickcek said through 2025, a third of the regional workforce will need retraining to perform the more technical jobs of tomorrow. Another third of the workforce will come out of the existing kindergarten-to-12th grade school system. The remaining third will have to come from in-migration of skilled workers from outside the area.

To provide the new homegrown workforce, the state’s educational system must change its curriculum, Erickcek said. Schools must develop courses that meet employers’ needs for more advanced skills in math, science and even mechanics.

But at the same time, area employers also must address a wage issue so West Michigan can become a better draw for skilled labor, Erickcek said.

“I’m not sure there is so much of a skills gap, as a wage gap,” he said. “Wages for production workers across the Midwest have stagnated over the past three to five years. It’s possible some of the firms who are paying low wages are unable to attract the workers they need because of the inadequate wage and benefit packages they are offering.

“Nationwide, a lot of employers also are being picky about their new hires. They want to find a person who fits in well, needs little training, and is willing to work for lower wages. Otherwise, they don’t fill the open jobs.”

Erickcek said he also finds it particularly interesting that employers say they’re looking for new hires to have soft skills — flexibility, technology skills more than technical skills, and the ability to be team players.

Being proactive

Talent 2025’s Stotts points to member company Autocam as an example of what West Michigan employers can do to create these ideal workers. Autocam has been working with The Right Place Inc.’s Manufacturing Council to encourage other area manufacturers to join the AMP program at Grand Rapids Community College.

So far, Gentex Corp. in Zeeland, Paragon Die & Engineering Co. of Grand Rapids, and Muskegon-based Anderson Global Inc. have joined. Kennedy also said the Michigan Economic Development Corp. has been studying the AMP model as one possible way for Michigan to address the technical job skills gap on a statewide level.

AMP was borne from an in-house training program Autocam launched about two decades ago to teach employees how to work with some sophisticated European-made machine tools the supplier used to build precision components for the automotive industry, Kennedy said. The program evolved in 1995 into a more formalized apprenticeship program.

Through 2011, the eight apprenticeship programs at Autocam helped train 88 people at a cost of $15,000 per person, according to the company. That cost includes class time, books and shop supplies, but does not include wages and benefits paid to the workers in the program. Sixty of the employees that started as apprentices remain at Autocam today.

In 2012, the apprenticeship program morphed into the AMP program involving GRCC.
Kennedy said he’s constantly looking for motivated young people to learn the manufacturing trade through AMP.

Besides employing about 700 people at seven plants in North America, Autocam employs 800 people at seven factories in Europe, South America and Asia. Most of the company’s business is as a Tier-I automotive supplier, but Autocam also builds precision medical devices.

While the AMP program has helped, last fall Autocam also reached out to area high schools to introduce 38 guidance counselors to the brave new world of high-tech advanced manufacturing. The outreach program included high schools in Byron Center, Caledonia, Coopersville, Forest Hills, Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Lowell.

“When they toured our medical device plant, where you can literally eat off the floors, we got an incredible reception from them,” Kennedy said.

Lakeshore Advantage is also quietly developing a community educational outreach program. Thelen said he wants to connect area employers with local students as early as the sixth grade. The program will match students to available training to fit employers’ needs.

A formal announcement is expected in June.

“We want to make students and their parents more aware of career opportunities in manufacturing,” Thelen said. “We want to get closer alignment between students and the labor supply.”

Read 8598 times Last modified on Friday, 10 May 2013 12:54

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