Published in Talent
Sales team members from Creston Industrial Sales get hands-on training with machining equipment as part of a customized program the company developed with Grand Rapids Community College. Sales team members from Creston Industrial Sales get hands-on training with machining equipment as part of a customized program the company developed with Grand Rapids Community College. COURTESY PHOTO

Industry turns to higher ed to fill specific talent gaps

BY Sunday, November 24, 2019 04:33pm

At a state-of-the-art machine tool laboratory in downtown Grand Rapids, a group of non-technical sales professionals learns about carbide, a compound made from carbon and metal, as well as takes in lessons about radial chip thinning, blueprinting and how tool cutting works.

The team is from Creston Industrial Sales Inc., a Grand Rapids-based supplier of tooling and industrial supplies to metal cutting or metal removal companies. The 40-hour, five-week course is designed to teach some of the company’s 42 employees aspects of machining equipment and machine theory in the hopes that it will bump up sales. 

“We have some new people that are starting that have varying degrees of experience in the industry and aren’t up to speed on the latest things that are in our industry that they need to know,” said Paul Hendricks, president of Creston Industrial Sales. “Normally, that would take a long time. They would go out on the job, they would spend time working with other people here, and then just through experience, it could be years to gain working knowledge.” 

To shorten the length of time it takes to prepare new staff from diverse backgrounds for the modern manufacturing field, and to give existing employees a broader knowledge of the industry that Creston Industrial Sales supplies, the company teamed up with Grand Rapids Community College to develop a customized curriculum. 

“There is no existing course for a company like ours to put somebody through,” Hendricks said. “Some of the colleges have two-year or four-year programs that might do this, but that kind of defeats the purpose for us. I’m trying to get somebody up to speed somewhat quickly.” 

In the face of worker shortages, Creston Industrial Sales is part of a growing group of local companies that are partnering with higher education institutions to fill very specific labor gaps and produce well-rounded employees, according to Mary Hofstra, the customized training manager at GRCC.

“Creston needs salespeople who understand manufacturing processes specifically around machining,” Hofstra told MiBiz. “The problem is do you find a machinist who is going to make a great salesman or do you find the salesman who can be a machinist? They decided that it would behoove them to hire people who know sales, really understand the sales process, but then teach them the machining concepts — because that makes them more of a problem solver for the company rather than just doing transactional sales.” 

Just this year, GRCC’s Customized Corporate Training program has trained more than 5,000 people and served more than 345 companies, including DeWys Manufacturing Inc., GHSP Inc. and Lacks Enterprises Inc. The courses are usually non-credit and free to the participants. Many of the companies that partner with GRCC pursue grant funding through the statewide Going PRO Talent Fund, according to Hofstra. 

However, that funding currently is under threat. 

Nearly $100 million has been awarded through the program to more than 3,000 businesses across the state since the fund was created by the Snyder administration in 2014.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is an active supporter of the program, which is allocated through local Michigan Works organizations, but the state Legislature has yet to agree on a final 2020 state budget that includes the initially allocated $37.3 million for the Going PRO Talent Fund. 

According to West Michigan Works, employers in the region have consistently received about 20 percent of the funds annually. Funds can be used for classroom training, reimbursement for onsite training and U.S. Department of Labor registered apprenticeships. About 22,000 Michigan workers will be denied training and potential salary gains if the funding is not restored, according to the state. 

“In the customized world, the student doesn’t pay for that training,” GRCC’s Hofstra said. “We work really hard with ourselves and our partners to look at any funding that may be available for the company.” 

The tighter the labor market gets, the more need there is for corporate education programs, according to Hofstra, who has been working in the Customized Corporate Training program for 25 years. 

“We kind of ebb and flow opposite of business. As the labor market gets busy, and (employees) are working a lot of hours because (employers) can’t find the people they need, (people) tend to go more to corporate training as opposed to a lot of credit students,” she said. “You would think our credit system would be really busy because of all the jobs, but people are working and they don’t have time to go to school right now. Until then, they’re looking more to the corporate training.”

At Creston Industrial Sales, the feedback from both new and existing employees participating in the course has been very positive, according to Hendricks. 

“They’ve learned a lot,” he said. “They got a very good general overview of a lot of the disciplines that are involved in the industry and even some employees that have been here quite a while came to us and explained that they learned something that they didn’t know.”

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