In an ongoing struggle with workforce shortages and a persistent talent gap, Michigan’s manufacturers have found a valuable asset in the Going Pro Talent Fund.
The fund, which is administered by the state’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, continues to directly support the industry’s acute workforce development needs, announcing in late January that it will distribute $39 million in grants to 850 businesses that will eventually go toward training 30,000 workers.
The West Michigan region — which consists of Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon and Ottawa counties — was awarded $12 million in total funds delivered to more than 280 businesses.
The fund also plans to disburse $2.7 million to 43 different businessesin the Southwest Michigan region.
The money can be used at the discretion of the company, but it must go to training efforts that provide upskilling for workers or supporting the increase in credentials, certificates and degrees.
“We have had, for several years now, employers facing really critical challenges with locating the talent that they need and being able to train and retain that talent so they can remain competitive with other states and the world,” said Amy Lebednick, business solutions director for workforce development agency West Michigan Works! “The Going Pro Talent Fund really helps to fill a gap of training that ensures a win-win for both the employers and job seekers.”
Manufacturers seize opportunity
While the Going Pro Talent Fund has been in place since 2013 and awards money to businesses in a variety of sectors, manufacturers are most prevalent on the extensive list of grant awardees for this year and years past. In fact, companies in the industry have gobbled up 43 percent of this year’s grant money, totaling $5.6 million statewide.
The industry as a whole has long battled a deficiency in talent, a problem that has only gotten worse with the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic ushered in mandatory shutdowns in the spring for many manufacturers, in addition to providing uncertainty in demand and triggering both voluntary and involuntary layoffs. As the industry adjusts to a new normal, manufacturers are finding it even tougher to fill hourly production positions, let alone openings for highly skilled talent.
“I would say that, generally over the years, our manufacturer employers probably take up the majority of our applications,” Lebednick said. “At West Michigan Works!, we do have industry talent councils in all five of our high-demand industries — construction, I.T., health care and agribusiness.”
While Lebednick has seen an uptick with those other industries receiving grant money, she added that “manufacturing absolutely takes the lead in submitting applications.”
Manufacturers are also increasingly turning to automation to fill in for workforce shortages, and with greater technology comes a greater need for training.
“Employers are investing in equipment and machinery in order to increase production and be able to manage the staff they do have. They’re making these capital investments and they really need the training and funds to be able to upskill their current workforce to use and program that new equipment,” Lebednick said.
Oliver Healthcare Packaging Co. certainly falls into this category. The Trevose, Pa.-based company employs more than 850 employees and operates seven manufacturing facilities and six technical labs throughout the world. Grand Rapids is home to its Americas headquarters.
The company was awarded $37,500 from the Going Pro Talent Fund to fuel training efforts.
Vice President of Global Operations Russell Douglas said that Oliver is embarking on a five-year workforce development initiative and is in the process of rolling out a new enterprise resource planning system, which includes a new manufacturing execution system (MES). With that, the company needs workers to have the skills to interface with components like advanced machine controls, robotics and machine vision systems.
“Most of our workforce touches a piece of equipment that has some level of interface either with MES or with advanced machine controls and process automation,” Douglas said. “We’re making sure they’re positioned well for those interfaces.”
The Going Pro funds will accelerate those efforts.
“Would we have undertaken that with or without receiving the grant? Yeah, we probably would have, but it certainly puts us in a much better position to accelerate that training and that activity,” Douglas added.
Moving the needle
Based on the outcomes of fiscal year 2019’s leveraged dollars from the fund, the program has been effective in moving the needle in this crucial area of manufacturing.
In 2019 (the program was unfunded in 2020), the fund divvied out $10.9 million across the state. In manufacturing, those dollars resulted in the training of 225 apprentices and 1,272 new hires while providing classroom training for an additional 2,894 workers.
This year’s funds are planned to provide training for 545 apprentices and 2,523 new hires with classroom training for 7,875 people.
Grand Haven-based R.A. Miller Industries Inc. (RAMI), which manufactures antennas for aerospace, vehicle and defense applications, is another West Michigan business that received money from the grant.
With a portion of the $32,050 grant, the company is developing a formal training program and set of standards to help employees learn a variety of precision training tools. Brooke Karl, director of finance and HR at the company, said that these skills not only benefit employees on the job at RAMI, but also transfer to other jobs throughout the industry.
“It provides a formal training structure with all the specific tools we use,” Karl said. “We found that every employee was using tools a little differently. This will get everyone on the same page and using the tools the same way. I think it’s really going to support and reduce our scrap rate and increase our efficiency.”
RAMI also will use some of the funds for a root cause analysis training program in an effort to better serve clients.
The rollout of additional training comes at a good time for RAMI, which saw a flood of new employees enter the company in 2018. Because of a combination of factors, including an aging workforce that started to retire and increased demand from government contracts, RAMI hired 86 new employees that year, which represented 45 percent of its direct, hourly workforce.
Training became an issue, especially when the older workers with all the institutional knowledge started to exit.
“We needed the money to launch the new standard. The amount of time and cost to train all 80 assembly associates, it’s too significant to take on with our own investment,” Karl said. “The idea is that this will help us get that going and create a standard. Then, going forward, we will have one training class a year for our new hires.”
Like most manufacturers that ran into workforce issues, RAMI took a hard look at talent development and training and explored avenues to solidify its personnel because of the pandemic, said CEO Rob Payne.
The exercise reinforced many of the practices the company was already implementing and will further cement with additional training, Payne said.
“With the current job market, we really look at a person’s attitude and the way they are as a person,” Payne said. “We take the position that we can train the hard skills that they need to do well. If they have the right attitude and willingness to work and are a good fit culturally, the hard skills and the specific things they might need on a day-to-day basis, those things can be trained.”