GRAND RAPIDS — Like many West Michigan-based manufacturers, Wolverine Coil Spring Co. has adopted an all-hands-on-deck approach to counter industry stereotypes and address talent-attraction challenges.
Increasingly, the Grand Rapids-based metal fabricator has been bringing in people of all ages for factory tours in an effort to become more transparent about the manufacturing career opportunities in the community, and to offer a more hands-on look at modern industry.
“I am just trying to open up my doors,” said Jay Dunwell, president of Wolverine Coil Spring, noting the company frequently hosts tours with local high schools near its facility at 818 Front Ave. NW in Grand Rapids.
“We bring busloads of their students, their counselors and their teachers through just so they get a picture and can see it, experience it, touch it,” he said. “They know what working at Wolverine might be like.”
Dunwell said tours often lead to internships or jobs at the 75-person company; three or four students who participated in a tour even went on to become employees.
The move to reshape perceptions about the manufacturing industry comes at a time when the state, higher ed and industry have started to become more focused on grooming skilled technical talent in Michigan.
Case in point: Gov. Rick Snyder in February proposed the “Marshall Plan for Talent,” calling for $100 million in new funding for programs, certifications, scholarships, equipment and training for guidance counselors and teachers. The plan’s goal included helping to fill the 811,000 job openings in the state through 2024, including placement in careers that pay $60,000 a year — jobs that often do not require traditional two- or four-year college degrees.
For his part, Dunwell relishes the new-found focus on narrowing the state’s talent gap, an issue manufacturers identified years ago. Back then — without a concerted effort to improve the state’s response to the problem — manufacturers had to “hope for the best and prepare for the worse.”
“It’s all about career exploration,” Dunwell said. “I think our state and local governments recognize how important skilled trades are for the economy of the state. … You don’t have to have a lot of college debt. Not that I don’t think college careers are worthy endeavors, but jumping into a four-year degree from high school is not your only path to success.”
A MATTER OF TIMING
Despite the new focus on technical talent and career opportunities that don’t require college degrees, many manufacturing experts say the efforts come late in the game, given the depth of the worker shortage and the graying of the industry’s existing workforce.
“The issue of talent is alive and well and will be getting much worse as the (baby) boomers retire,” said David Cole, chair of AutoHarvest, a Detroit-based nonprofit focused on manufacturing innovation, and a former professor at the University of Michigan. “In manufacturing, the range of skill shortages is the full spectrum from the earliest stages of basic material creation through design and manufacturing to sales and service.
“From my perspective, the issue we are still struggling with is getting the real message to the broader population. In manufacturing, the number one shortage is for skilled trades and technicians, but it includes engineers, sales and business people.”
In particular, Cole questions whether the current efforts do enough to enlighten students about the benefits associated with vocational-based education, as opposed to the familiar “college-for-all” refrain.
“We really don’t have that interaction between students and hands-on type of things, and there are reasons for that,” Cole said. “One reason is it is out of fashion for a lot of people, another is these classes are expensive. Teachers could earn three times as much money using the knowledge outside (in industry), rather than teaching.”
Effecting significant change among students, parents and educators regarding the opportunities in manufacturing is inherently a long-term goal, as generational perceptions can take years to evolve, according to Cindy Brown, executive director of the Grand Rapids-based talent recruitment organization Hello West Michigan.
“I think there are a lot of great things going on (in Michigan) to change the perception of manufacturing,” Brown said, noting that “it’s going to take a while” for manufacturers to actually notice change.
“We have to try new things. We don’t have many people going into the skilled trades, and we have to try different ways to inspire our young adults and our young people to look for positions that could be good for them — and that could be skilled trades,” she said.
One of the ways manufacturers like Wolverine Coil Spring are reaching out to students and even parents is through plant tours. Brown said the recruitment tool helps people gain understanding about the technologically-driven manufacturing industry of today.
Brown added that students who pass by manufacturing plants are oblivious to what’s going on inside, but tours “open up their eyes for a future job.”
Outside of factory tours, regional collaborations like Discover Manufacturing have formed to connect community colleges, higher education institutions and economic developers with advanced manufacturers.
The organization’s partnership with West Michigan Works! focuses on building a talent pipeline of future employees, including creating relationships with local high schools, community colleges or universities, Dunwell said.
Through organizations such as., Discover Manufacturing and West Michigan Works!, manufacturers are taking steps “in the right direction to (solve) the region-wide talent needs,” Dunwell said.
“That’s where I think West Michigan has a lot of strengths — with our collaborations,” he said. “It’s about these institutions getting together and saying, ‘We can issue associate’s degrees like we have never issued before,’ and building those post-secondary credentials that employers are looking for. Maybe now it’s merit badges instead of fancy diplomas. ”