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How Minnesota employers are trying to get more students interested in manufacturing

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Over the next decade, according to a 2015 a report from Deloitte and Manufacturing Institute, more than 3 million manufacturing positions will be available nationwide.

If you’re looking for a career in a growing industry that pays more and requires less time in school, then manufacturing might be a good fit. That’s the message of local leaders in the industry who are working to recruit young employees and students for careers in manufacturing, a field that provides employment to nearly half a million Minnesotans.

Since the Great Recession, during which Minnesota shed more than 54,000 jobs, manufacturing operations have struggled to attract enough workers. That’s not good for the economy, of course, especially when more and more baby boomers are aging out of the workforce. 

That’s why state government agencies, private firms and nonprofit organizations are trying to develop grassroots solutions: raising awareness about the industry and trying to dispell negative perceptions about it.

A national problem

Minnesota is not alone in its need for manufacturing workers. In recent years, there has been an increasing demand for skilled workers in the country, a need that is expected to persist for years to come. Indeed, over the next decade, according to a 2015 a report from Deloitte and Manufacturing Institute, more than 3 million manufacturing positions will be available nationwide — with 60 percent of them likely remaining unfilled.

In Minnesota, nearly 5,000 manufacturing jobs currently remain unfilled — a number that will likely grow as more and more employees move into retirement.

The lack of skilled workers is due in part to fewer and fewer young people choosing careers in the industry. One of the factors fueling that gap is the increasing numbers of high schools closing down their industrial training classes in recent years, said Marni Hockenberg, founder and president of Minnetonka-based Hockenberg Search, which provides recruiting services to manufacturing companies. “These are classes that would teach young people skills such as working in metal fabrication and tooling,” she said. “So, we lost a lot of potential workers because they just were not exposed to ways that they could work with their hands and earn a living.”

Still another reason, Hockenberg noted, is that high school counselors, teachers and parents often emphasize the importance of a four-year degree. That leads fewer students to express an interest in community and technical colleges — schools that provide training students need to work in the manufacturing field.

Marni Hockenberg
Marni Hockenberg

“They weren’t getting the enrollment that they needed,” Hockenberg said, speaking of community colleges. “So, that reduced the number of graduates with two-year degrees, which reduced the number of potential workers.”

There’s also the stigma attached to manufacturing work. “The parents themselves think that manufacturing was dirty and grimy,” said Hockenberg. “The perception was that they didn’t want their kids working in that kind of environment. So, they didn’t encourage their kids to go into manufacturing.”

But that isn’t the case today, noted Bob Kill, executive director of Enterprise Minnesota, a consulting organization that works with manufacturing companies. “All the jobs that were once manual, are now computer-driven jobs,” he said, adding that “these are very clean environment jobs because manufacturers had to upgrade all their positions to attract young people.”

Countering negative perceptions

To combat the negative perceptions, state government officials and leaders in manufacturing are taking various approaches to raise awareness about the importance of manufacturing to Minnesota, a sector that contributes more than $48 billion each year to the state’s economy, and includes such iconic companies as 3M, General Mills, Ecolab, Hormel Foods, and St. Jude Medical.

One step is designating the first week of October to be Minnesota Manufacturing Week, which included a statewide Tour of Manufacturing, which gives schools, families and the general public an opportunity to visit manufacturers and learn about the various career possibilities.

Bob Kill
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Bob Kill

“The idea behind Manufacturing Week is to highlight and bring more people into the manufacturing companies to see firsthand what it’s about,” Kill said. “The manufacturing that a lot of people know is kind of yesterday’s news. Today, there are exciting careers to have in manufacturing.”

But companies that rely on manufacturing aren’t just relying on the state to help improve the industry’s outlook. Hockenberg noted that many employers in the field are working to find solutions to the worker shortage, too. “There are some companies that are inviting high school students to tour their facility to get them interested in a career in manufacturing,” she said. “They’re introducing these young people to what a manufacturing company does, what it looks like inside, what kind of careers they can have with a two-year degree and how much they could earn.”

Enterprise Minnesota, likewise, is trying to bring more visibility to the industry. Kill said that the organization connects the public and private companies to elected officials and economic development organizations “so that manufacturing can be recognized as an important creator of jobs for communities across the state.” 

“Over the last six years, manufacturers have really been united in trying to reach out to attract more young people,” Kill said. “This is a fun and challenging time for the manufacturing industry in Minnesota.”

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Anthony Walsh on 10/18/2016 - 11:55 am.

    But what about…

    Interesting how compensation isn’t mentioned by the interviewees anywhere in the article.

    Asking someone to go through the effort to get a degree or certification that may not pay enough to cover student loans, rent, insurance, car payments, and the other domestic necessities of life in this country sounds like a tall order.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 10/18/2016 - 01:59 pm.

      Pay is mentioned twice in the article

      a vague reference at the beginning “…pays more…”, pays more than WHAT it doesn’t say and at the end it references their high school outreach with another vague reference to how much they can earn. Its typical of this type of complaining about not being able to fill jobs, they never seem to add the part about not being able to fill jobs at the offered pay rate.

      I have a simple solution, quit with the out reach, stop spending tax money trying to coerce students into going into manufacturing and START PAYING A DECENT WAGE! That’s it, its that simple, Pay a Decent Wage and word will get out. Of course that won’t happen. Profits and Management Compensation have to be maintained.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 10/19/2016 - 09:23 am.

    If we are going to stop spending tax dollars on

    programs that don’t work , let’s start with public education…. That is not working as evidenced by USA dropping to 35 in the world during the past 40 years of DC run public education. Putting back industrial arts courses in High School would help. I know that is not as sexy as adding another interpetive dance class for those who think getting your hands dirty is disgusting, but it introduces youngsters to working with their hands…. That is not disgusting, that is called working! As far as pay goes, it pays much more that working at Subway… The more competition in the manufacturing sector the more the pay goes up for folks who excel. If you start in High School then go to tech school for a year or two you can get certified in any number of jobs that truly do pay well and not be in $100,000 in debt from the collage scam program. Jobs that pay better than the part time/service industry jobs this administration (plus most here as Minnpost) loves to tout as “job growth”- welders, electricians, plumbers, heavy machine mechanic, crane operators, masons, heavy machine operators the list goes on and on…. None of those jobs are disgusting, most of the folks I know and admire the most have done one or many of those jobs.

  3. Submitted by a.christensen christensen on 10/19/2016 - 09:37 am.

    apprenticeship & wages

    I teach at a high school here in Charlotte, NC. My school is close to a group of companies that all support apprenticeship programs in high tech manufacturing. Each year they offer (on average) entrance into their apprenticeship programs to about 40 students. The 40 offers are spread over the collective participating companies.

    The apprenticeship program is a four year commitment for both the student and the sponsoring company. During the first two-three years the student attends a local community college (paid for the sponsor) for approximately 25 hours/week and the remainder of the week is spent at the sponsor company. AND IS PAID FOR 40 HOURS. During these four years the pay will begin at about $9/hr and go up yearly to about $14/hour for the 4th year student. Once the student has completed the program and the student becomes a ‘regular’ fulltime employee, their salary will almost double. And since they CAN begin this program when they are seniors in high school, they can complete this program by the time they are 21 years old. By the time they are in their late 20’s, with overtime they can be making $90-100K per year.

    The students that I have taught and are in the program usually remain living at home for at least the first two years of the program. Just like so many of young students at any community college. The participating sponsor companies are well known internationally in the manufacturing/machining sector and those who complete the apprenticeship program have almost guaranteed employment. And are usually marked for rapid advancement within the company.

    I am not saying this opportunity exists in all parts of the country, but it does here. And it works.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/23/2016 - 02:37 pm.

    Why should any high school student think of going into a skilled job in manufacturing that only pays the minimum wage, or slightly above i? $14 a hour after four years of study post-high school? Maybe that’s good in North Carolina, but it doesn’t cut it in Minnesota!

    I read a Star Tribune article today (Sunday Oct. 23) about how a local pipe works manufacturer is having a hard time finding skilled and semi-skilled workers. For what amounts to the “new normal” minimum wage, or !$15 an hour. Boo-hoo. It’s classic economic theory: if there’s a shortage, raise the price, or in this case the wages paid, for what is scarce: workers. The manufacturers don’t seem to realize that you can’t raise a family on $15 a hour–even though we’re all struggling to get businesses to understand that $600 in gross wages per week, or $31,200 gross a year (before Social Security Medicare and income taxes are deducted from it) is bare bones.

    They keep advertising, and moaning and groaning about how there are no skilled machinists, etc., out there, but they sure won’t offer better wages until they find the level at which that scarce commodity–skilled workers–are drawn to them.

    One does tire of the business world insisting that $30 million a year is necessary to find and keep the CEO, but refusing good salaries at the bottom (the Wells Fargo flap provides a lesson where the low-level $30,000-a-year fired workers, who are now being sued in civil court by their victims, are themselves victims of greedy executives like Mr. Stumpf who earns tens of millions a year).

  5. Submitted by Jeffrey McIntyre on 10/26/2016 - 09:13 am.

    How to attract and retain talent

    The company I retired from in 2009 solved this problem years ago. They partnered with two community colleges, in two different states, in developing programs tailored to the company’s needs. It was a win for everyone: The Colleges attracted students, The Company had access to qualified job candidates, and the Students were hired into jobs that paid a decent salary, with great benefits…but it required an investment of time and money by the company. Tours of a shop floor are interesting…but it’s a pretty passive approach to attracting talent.

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