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Sunday, 18 February 2018 19:50

Southwest Michigan manufacturers join KVCC consortium to fill workplace gaps

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Until business leaders can come together to address industry problems, companies “will not succeed.”

That’s according to Dave Felicijan, president of Accu-Mold LLC, a Portage-based plastic injection molding manufacturer. 

Felicijan’s company is among dozens that participate in the Advanced Manufacturing Career Consortium (AMCC), a group focused on solving employers’ problems through programs and services to meet whatever gaps there may be in the workforce.

At AMCC, members meet quarterly to discuss and develop innovative strategies while pulling together local resources to address issues and opportunities for today’s generation of workers, including on-the-job training, apprenticeships, career advancement and wages.

It’s a program that’s crucial for small and large manufacturers in Southwest Michigan, including Accu-Mold, Felicijan said. 

“It works out great to be able to collaborate with your peers,” Felicijan told MiBiz. “Years ago, no one would do that because of worrying about intellectual property being stolen. But unless we work together, we will not succeed.”

Felicijan said that not only has AMCC helped fill vacant positions at Accu-Mold, but it’s become a place for employers to talk through their various challenges.

“For instance, if somebody loses a business for a reason, the collaboration makes it much easier for someone to reach out to them,” Felicijan said. “The collaborative training (also) helps with the distinct training each position has.” 

Today, 28 active manufacturing members and roughly 10 service provider organizations participate in the consortium, which includes leaders in manufacturing, education, service agencies, workforce development and economic development. Founded in 2011 at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, AMCC focuses on “pain points” in talent recruitment, screening and training. 

“We are creating programs and services to meet whatever gaps there are in the economy to make our businesses stronger, to make jobs stay local and in the region, and hopefully facilitate driving industry in Southwest Michigan,” said Kate Miller, corporate training manager at KVCC. 

Miller said the group’s focus may shift as manufacturers’ needs change. 

One way the consortium is adapting to meet employer needs is by providing training onsite for businesses that are not able to send their employees to KVCC.

During times of low unemployment, employers are not able to release employees for training weeks or even days at a time, Miller said. That’s why KVCC is moving a 20-week full-time academy to classes that meet once a week for four or eight hours, which allows employees to study around their work schedules.

These classes include training in electrical systems, fluid power, mechanics, machine maintenance and robotics, Miller said.

The program exists “to respond to the demands of our current economy and to assist with filling the training gaps that exist now and will present themselves in the future,” she added. “This requires us to be adaptive and to keep our ears very close to the industry. The consortium is one mechanism we use to do it successfully.”

The AMCC isn’t exclusively for KVCC students. Rather, Miller said the consortium is a place for resources to come together to make the region’s employers stronger.

“Our competitors are invited,” Miller said. “Kellogg Community College comes to this, and we don’t view this as competition. We view this as trying to pull all of the resources in the region to collaborate and to look at things a little bit outside just our business units.

“We can solve together as well as identifying strategies that are going to help businesses across all segments.”

Miller is “unsure” whether recruitment, screening and training will remain the objectives of AMCC moving forward. The group wants to remain responsive to the needs of its members, she said. 

However industries may change in the years ahead, the consortium will remain “very adaptive” and a part of the continuum of economic development in Southwest Michigan, Miller said.

“So many people don’t get inside the factories, and they don’t see how meaningful the products are that are being made in the region,” she said. “They don’t see how much science and innovation goes into them, how much problem solving goes into them and how really wonderful these companies are at taking care of their employees.”

FINDING TALENT

Given the struggle manufacturers have in finding workers, many companies have had to turn to “alternative populations” to solve their workforce needs, Miller said. 

Felicijan at Accu-Mold credits AMCC with helping his company connect with Urban Alliance, a Kalamazoo-based nonprofit organization offering high school students opportunities in workforce training.

“Urban Alliance is something that we would have never known about without the AMCC,” Felicijan said. “(They) train students quickly and turn around employees that we need desperately.”

Another Urban Alliance program, the Momentum Urban Employment Initiative, works to improve workforce development in urban neighborhoods by focusing on people who are homeless, disabled or single mothers re-entering the workforce. 

“We have partnered with (Urban Alliance’s) Momentum on a few different academies, where we have actually recruited populations that maybe have a history of being incarcerated,” Miller said. “They may be homeless, they may have had (drug) addiction problems and we put them through a six-week program through Momentum.”

Individuals in the Momentum program work on soft skills and then are put into a technical production academy or a warehouse management academy. The six-week program includes 100 hours of in-class instruction and 100 hours of volunteering, with people having an 80-percent to 90-percent retention rate upon completion. 

“At the end, we have employers who are willing to spend good wages and provide them with that continuous support, and it’s had a tremendous success rate,” Miller said.

“There’s such a stigma against manufacturing, and it’s still a tendency for parents to tell their kids they need a four-year degree,” Miller added. “(The AMCC) is really looking to reshape some of those mindsets. There have a been a lot of things set up through different collaborations, where we are allowing teachers teaching STEM in high school or middle school and guidance counselors to visit area manufacturers … and see how meaningful some of these jobs are.” 

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