Strengthening Tomorrow’s Manufacturing Workforce

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Over the next decade, 22 percent of the skilled manufacturing workforce in the U.S. will retire. During this time, the industry is also expected to grow, which translates to a projected shortfall of about 2 million workers, according to the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte.

Various groups have begun a concerted effort to raise awareness about modern-day manufacturing and the need for a pipeline of skilled workers. There’s a particular focus on dispelling negative perceptions about the sector and its jobs among young people.

APEX works closely with the Arrowhead Manufacturers & Fabricators Association (AMFA) to strengthen and grow the manufacturing and fabrication industries in our region. Ensuring a strong future workforce is a critical piece of this.

“We’ve heard from our APEX investor-members that workforce development is their number one issue of concern,” says Ian Vincent, who is senior business developer at APEX and serves as AMFA’s vice president.

Sandy Johnson, manager of member relations and administration with APEX, took the lead in creating and disseminating posters and brochures about manufacturing career pathways to regional tech schools and workforce development centers as well as middle and high schools.

This effort happened in October to coincide with Manufacturing Month. The idea is to use the materials as a recruiting tool for local manufacturers. Since area businesses are currently in need of welders, machinists and A & P mechanics, the materials illustrate the educational requirements and pay scales for each career path along with regional employers seeking these types of workers.

APEX and AMFA assisted with the coordination of a first of its kind, region-wide effort to help students make the connection between the manufacturing process and existing jobs through facility tours. Several of APEX’s investor members participated.

Over 400 students from Superior, Iron Range and Duluth-area schools participated in over 25 visits to 15 manufacturing facilities. Locally, students from Denfield, East, Hermantown, Proctor, Esko, Cloquet, and Wrenshall/Carlton visited companies such as AAR, Altec, Cirrus, IKONICS, IPS Cranes, SCS Interiors, Bendtec, Sappi and USG.

AMFA Educational Trust provided funding for these students to receive a drawstring backpack filled with the APEX brochures and other manufacturing job related information.

Jim Bianchi, the tech instructor at Superior High School says the experience helped students understand the practical applications of skills they’re learning in class, including measuring, using CAD programs and CNC machine operation

“It seemed to give them a better understanding of the importance of what they are being taught and how it is being used in the real world. We had several good discussions about the jobs they watched people do and how manufacturing isn't just standing on an assembly line putting a part on a product,” Bianchi says.

In addition to proactive strategies to attract future manufacturing workers, APEX helps companies find and win state grants for incumbent worker training. When employees have access to advanced training, they can improve skills and earn promotions. Vincent points out that when a floor level employee moves up in a company, it creates a job opportunity for younger and less experienced workers.

Advanced training can also help companies with both employee retention and overall competitiveness. APEX assists companies in identifying employee training possibilities. Customized training options are available through Lake Superior College and the University of Minnesota Duluth to aid such efforts.

During Manufacturing Month, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson visited Lake Superior College’s downtown campus, which hosts the Integrated Manufacturing program. She praised the program, which teaches welding, machining, imaging and 3-D printing and has an impressive 100 percent placement rate for its graduates.  

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