The combination of an improved business climate and an aging workforce has a number of West Michigan companies partnering with educational institutions and one another to ensure their future supply of talent.
Whether it’s a manufacturing company engaging with its local school district or community college or economic developers implementing new programs, the business community around the state has realized it must take a proactive approach to talent development.
In many cases, companies have approached training out of necessity, as was the case with Grand Rapids-based metal stamper Pridgeon & Clay Inc.
“Parents (told) their kids that they didn’t want them working in a factory,” said Gabrielle Calkins, the manufacturer’s training and development manager. “All manufacturing was known as was ‘factory work.’ … Manufacturing was not seen as desirable.”
As a result, the automotive supplier with approximately 850 employees in Grand Rapids struggled over the last few years to find skilled workers to staff its manufacturing operation, as well as other areas of the business such as design and engineering, Calkins said. That struggle, at least in part, can be traced to the perception held by many young people that manufacturing no longer serves as a good career choice, she added.
Pridgeon & Clay, in an effort to change that perception, is making a concerted effort to engage with school districts and community colleges in the region to establish a pipeline for skilled workers in the long term.
“(Regional community colleges) have done a lot more to enhance their programs that focus on skilled trades,” Calkins said. “I’ve seen a lot more businesses taking part in outreach programs, not just to (higher education) institutions, but really starting in middle school. We’re trying to hit a much wider age range and interest level.”
Beyond engaging with high schools and community colleges, Pridgeon & Clay actively engages new hires with an in-house training program and offers reimbursement for skills training at technical schools, Calkins said.
The auto supplier also looks at general employability skills such as attendance and attention to detail as a means to create what Calkins calls a “holistic (training) program.”
To stay competitive in the automotive supply chain, a company like Pridgeon & Clay must also have a heavy focus on product design and engineering. To that end, the company is also looking for people who are proficient beyond working a press or CNC machine, she said.
“We know for sure that work will never be less complex than it is today,” Calkins said. “Technology will continue to increase, so we need people who can approach that from a well-rounded perspective. We need folks who aren’t just highly skilled from a technical perspective. We also need liberal arts people who can be creative problem solvers and (have) the ability to analyze and be critical thinkers.”
Pridgeon & Clay is hardly the only West Michigan manufacturer taking matters of training and talent development into its own hands. Marne-based metal fabricator DeWys Manufacturing Inc., for example, set up its own in-house training program to develop skilled workers in response to the high turnover it saw after less-than-fruitful recruiting efforts, MiBiz previously reported.
DeWys University is not an accredited institution, but the company’s 12-week on-the-job training program provides potential hires exposure to the company’s range of functions including welding, powder coating and machining.
While not a cheap endeavor — an executive told MiBiz last year that the cost to establish the program approached $200,000 — the benefit to the company can be measured in the creation of a pipeline for talent and a reduction in turnover.
In the greater Holland area, the need to establish the talent pipeline spurred a coalition of lakeshore area school districts, economic development agencies and some of the area’s largest employers to partner to create the “Connections” program. The program takes students as early as the sixth grade and seeks to provide a core curriculum that will give them exposure to the skills that companies such as Haworth Inc., Gentex Corp. and Johnson Controls Inc. look for when they’re hiring, according to prior MiBiz reports.
The goal for the program, which began last September, is to create an easy pipeline for these companies to get skilled workers and begin to step away from the process of having to retrain new hires.
The good news for employers like Pridgeon & Clay who are working to ensure that they support a well-trained workforce is that there a number of other resources around the state to augment their efforts.
The issue of talent development is also on the minds of leaders at the state level. The state Legislature allocated $10 million this fiscal year to create the Skilled Trades Training Fund, which helps companies in manufacturing, construction and skilled services industries to access funding for the creation of classroom-based training programs, on-the-job training and other customized programs that lead to full-time employment.
The program is administered by the Michigan Strategic Fund via the Workforce Development Agency and its partners, including Michigan Works! agencies, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., local economic development organizations and community colleges. The state Workforce Development Agency estimates the fund will result in more than 11,900 people receiving training and the creation of more than 1,350 jobs.
Importantly, the funds can only be used to assist companies with technical training as opposed to working with candidates on soft skills, said Deb Lyzenga, business services manager with the Michigan Works! of Kent and Allegan counties.
Pridgeon & Clay was among the companies participating in the program. It received a $153,000 grant from the fund to hire 100 employees by May 31, provide them on-the-job training and retain them. Other companies in the region are using the funds to improve the skills of incumbent workers and new hires in in-demand jobs.
The program also requires employers to have some skin in the game. While the program provides reimbursement of up to $1,500 for each employee that is trained, companies only receive those funds if they retain the person for at least six months. Some firms with an apprenticeship program are eligible for reimbursement of up to $3,000 per employee.
Additionally, the MEDC has its own set of programs for technical training and development, including the Michigan Advanced Technician Training (MAT2) program, which is often cited by Gov. Rick Snyder as part of his effort to replicate the German apprenticeship program in the state.
MAT2 helps workers looking for a career in manufacturing to receive three years of training at one of four community colleges on the east side of the state with their tuition paid by employers. While attending school, trainees receive on-the-job training with pay. Upon completion, the trainees earn an associate degree and have a guaranteed job with the company.
As of this year, participants in MAT2 have three program options: mechatronics technician, IT technician or technical product design.
“MAT2 is a good example of a startup program that we launched, and we are looking to scale it in a big way going into 2015,” MEDC President and CEO Mike Finney told MiBiz at the Governor’s Economic Summit held in Grand Rapids in March. “We are expecting that the (different regions of the state) will provide ideas that will allow us to scale.”