Talent gaps and workforce shortages are two issues that have dogged the manufacturing industry for years, pushing Michigan companies and their supporting organizations to develop a more robust talent pipeline in Michigan.
One of the first orders of business is to correct the outdated perception of the industry.
With the evolution and advancement of automation and Industry 4.0 technologies, dark, dirty and dangerous factories are a thing of the past.
“The manufacturing industry years ago had a bad rep for what it looked like,” said Cindy Brown, vice president of talent initiatives for regional economic development firm The Right Place Inc., which is also home to the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center - West.
“Through different initiatives through the Manufacturers Council and West Michigan Works! with (its) Discover Manufacturing (program), the whole idea was to set a realistic light on what is happening in our facilities.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has not made these efforts any easier by layering on additional workforce shortages. The state’s manufacturing workforce has shrunk by 68,000 people since January, from 628,000 to 560,000, according to the Michigan Manufacturers Association.
Some manufacturers are lucky enough to have an adequate production staff.
“There are a lot of manufacturers that are in a good place and some that are not,” Brown said. “It’s not a blanket statement. There are different pieces of companies that are doing very well — they’re hiring and helping grow their people, which is fantastic. There are others that are struggling right now.”
Changing the perception of the manufacturing industry is a vital first step in sparking an interest in junior high and high school students, according to John Walsh, who took over as president and CEO of the MMA in January this year.
Walsh said statistics show it is ideal to capture the attention and creativity of middle school-aged children to get them thinking about a potential career in manufacturing.
One way the MMA does this is by teaming up with manufacturers around the state, setting aside days when children and families can visit facilities to see firsthand what a modern shop floor looks like.
“When people come, kids and parents alike are like, ‘Wow, we didn’t expect this,’” Walsh said. “‘We didn’t know you could do this. We didn’t know how much autonomy a worker had. We didn’t know it wasn’t the traditional assembly line.’
“Look, it’s still manufacturing,” he added. “There are still loud noises and still an element of danger from the use of chemicals or products that require some risk mitigation. But on the other hand, if you like working with your hands or working with other people, it’s a great place to be.”
Gentex Corp. is an appropriate example of modern manufacturing. The Zeeland-based provider of rearview mirrors and camera-based driver assistance systems operates a clean, highly-automated, climate-controlled facility, and readily puts it on display when trying to attract new talent.
For this month’s virtual edition of Discover Manufacturing Week, Gentex created a video showing off its cutting-edge facility, and the work conducted inside, to a pool of 10,000 students statewide.
To further build a bridge between its company and local schools, Gentex also meets students where they are.
“We do work with elementary, middle schools and high schools, whether it’s supporting robotic programs or lending the talent of our engineering team,” said Seth Bushouse, senior director of human resources for Gentex. “It’s not just cutting a check — we get involved with our local school systems and our K-12 students.”
And once new talent is in the door, Gentex focuses on developing its workers.
Bushouse said Gentex has developed a robust training and onboarding program to up-skill its existing workforce and meet some of the more high-skill demands of the business.
“We love to promote from within,” Bushouse said. “We have great partners through (Grand Rapids Community College) and other third parties that we can use to train people up on technical skills, troubleshooting, robotics, continuous improvement, quality control, machine operations, tool room — I’m really proud of the way we can grow and promote people through the system.”
While Walsh says talent development efforts at the state and federal level are effective, one of the crucial ways that manufacturing can develop a more robust pipeline is through collaboration.
For example: If a West Michigan manufacturer had talent needs, it might consider hiring Grand Rapids Community College to offer a certificate program to train potential new workers. However, after earning the certificate, if that same worker moved across the state to work in a different segment of the manufacturing industry, the certificate would not transfer and they would require additional training.
“As a result, they have to re-enroll — even though it’s provided by the employer — and get certified again,” Walsh said. “One of the things I’m going to be focusing on in the new year is working with our community colleges and other educational institutions to find some base certification levels that can travel with you. I think that will be a big help.”
Futures for Frontliners — a program that recently emerged in Michigan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — is poised to bolster the manufacturing talent pool.
The program provides a tuition-free pathway to college or a technical certificate to essential workers who don’t have a college degree.
The new educational opportunities made available through the program can be used to usher new talent into manufacturing, or up-skill people who already hold lower level production jobs.
“You talk about making a wise investment with tax dollars and getting a work force ready — this is huge,” Walsh said of the program. “The state that does it right is the state that will attract new jobs.”
Earlier in the month, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) announced that 85,000 essential workers applied for the program.
The department has not collected industry-specific data, but it will be available as frontline workers choose their respective educational paths.
The program is also a push to reach what the state calls its Sixty by 30 goal, in which 60 percent of working-age residents would have either a technical certificate or college degree by 2030.
Sixty by 30 Director Kerry Ebersole said the droves of essential workers who applied for the program is encouraging, but she’s ultimately gauging success on how many enroll and complete their subsequent training.
“We know that in the manufacturing sector here in the state there are about 600,000 jobs,” Ebersole said. “We know that there are often many that go unfilled on an annual basis. This is exactly some of the manufacturing positions we have our training for and are going to help prepare (frontline workers) for.”
Ebersole also said the program is designed to serve as a starting point for a new career, not the ultimate destination.
“Just because you come in the front door as an assembler, you may become a machinist and go on to be a CNC programmer or a machining supervisor — this is a pathway to growth and opportunity,” she said.