by Brittany Willes, contributing writer, The American Mold Builder
Manufacturing industries have struggled with labor shortages for years, and the problem only is expected to get worse. According to Forbes, “[T]he long-standing fact remains that there’s a wide disparity between the number of people entering the field of manufacturing and the needs of the industry. Estimates put the manufacturing labor shortage at 2.4 million by 2028.” AMBA members are all too aware of this disparity. In 2017, members had reported that less than 40% of its workforce was aged 18 to 50, while more than 60% were aged 50 or older. Today, those numbers have only gotten worse.
To combat the labor shortage, AMBA members are having to take a different approach to workforce development, namely looking to their local communities. According to AMBA Director of Strategic Execution Rachael Pfenninger, “Without deep, long-term connections within their local community, their future workforce will remain inaccessible and unaware of the career potential within a mold building career.” As a result, several AMBA members have taken steps toward building those vital relationships by targeting young people still in school.
Back to school
“I struggled in school,” said Lou Romano, president of ROMOLD, Rochester, New York. “I was the kid that would skip English class and go to the wood shop and work on my project.” As a result, Romano understands first-hand the importance of connecting with the younger generation and presenting alternatives to the traditional four-year college experience. “School counselors are programmed to drive people toward college,” he continued. “You have to do some reprogramming.” For Romano, and many others, this means going several steps beyond simply setting up a booth at the occasional Career Day or offering facility tours. To truly develop those long-term relationships that will pay off in the future, companies will need to be much more proactive now.
For Romano, it made sense to get involved with his local manufacturing association, in conjunction with schools, and target those students who, like himself, maybe struggle in a traditional classroom and are not interested in pursuing a formal college education. “People learn differently,” he said. “Just because someone isn’t excelling in the classroom doesn’t mean they won’t excel in a different environment.” As a result, ROMOLD offers many opportunities for high school students to get a feel for what a possible career in moldmaking would be like. The Rochester Technology & Manufacturing Association (RTMA) incubated a pre-apprenticeship program aimed at high school juniors to expose them to the trade through plant tours, presentations, assemblies and more. “Here, the goal for juniors is just to expose them to the idea of it,” Romano said. “Then, their senior year, they have the opportunity to participate in a co-op program. This is where seniors can work in shops for credits toward journeyman status and/or a college degree.”
These types of programs allow students a solid, hands-on experience while dispelling common myths about manufacturing careers. Currently, the thinking is that, “high school students who struggle with mainstream curriculum get shepherded into whatever trade program their school offers,” he said. “The challenge is to align students, education, parents and companies with the common goal of assisting young people to develop a career. We emphasize that a four-year degree culminates with an entry level job (if they’re lucky) and student debt vs. an apprenticeship with four years of trade experience and your required schooling paid for by your sponsor company. Learning a skilled trade is a great equalizer. Your skill/trade worth isn’t affected by gender, race, religion, etc. You are rewarded on merit. There are many paths available no matter where you start from.”
ROMOLD is not the only company working with schools to expose students to the opportunities in manufacturing. “We have developed a great relationship with a few school districts,” noted Charles Daniels, chief financial officer for Wepco Plastics, Middlefield, Connecticut. “We started by offering tours to the educators and supporting leadership programs.” Wepco even went so far as to install moldmaking machines in two local elementary schools.
“We applied for an AMMA grant and were able to purchase 3D printers, software, tabletop CNC milling machines and training for two elementary schools,” Daniels stated. “There wasn’t a good handoff between elementary and high school, so we really wanted to develop ways of targeting younger kids in grades K-6. We wanted to build awareness and excitement about manufacturing and STEAM programs.”
Others see the benefit of partnering with the schools. “We’ve made strategic, concentrated efforts to educate our local community,” said Kylee Carbone, human resources for Westminster Tool and Solutions, Plainfield, Connecticut. “We’re focused on elementary, middle and high schools, specifically in the Plainfield area. A great resource has been the Eastern Manufacturing Alliance, which has helped to bring together other manufacturers in the area. We’ve been able to apply for grants to build training programs, build relationships with the schools and students, and share best practices.”
Champion the cause
Connecting with local schools and students is a crucial step in workforce development, and one that is very rewarding. For instance, when Westminster Tool first began its efforts, local schools were hesitant. “However, now that we have established relationships, we are able to work collaboratively and create truly phenomenal programs,” said Carbone. “For example, our local high school has a program that provides credits that are transferable to the local community college’s Advanced Manufacturing Certificate program. That type of pipeline approach was, at one time, just a dream for us.”
Westminster is not the only business that faced challenges when it came to working with schools to develop programs. Eifel Mold, Fraser, Michigan, currently works with Lincoln High School in South Warren and relies heavily on “internal champions” to connect with students. “It’s important that companies know what’s being taught so they can work with schools to design programs around providing credit hours,” said President Rick Hecker. “To that end, it also is vital to connect with the teachers and administrators – ‘internal champions’ who are willing to steer kids toward you.”
Like other companies, Eifel offers students a chance for hands-on learning experiences. “We offer plant tours with job shadowing opportunities,” said Hecker. “Once a year, we assign kids a project that they actually get credit for. We’ve done a frisbee mold, cellphone holders, etc. It’s usually a half-day program for small groups where students can see the shop and really experience what it’s like to be a part of the industry.”
None of these programs would be possible without the help of those internal champions. That’s why many manufacturers make concentrated efforts to reach out to the educators first, so they will have a better idea of what the benefits are for their schools and students.
“In 2013, we put together a bus tour for manufacturing,” said Tim Myers, general manager for Century Die Company in Freemont, Ohio. “We took about 40 counselors and principals through five facilities. This really opened up some doors.” According to Myers, teachers often have no clue what is going on with the industry and feel like they have no time to figure it out. Reaching out to the leadership side of the education system and the people in the classroom every day put Century Die in a better position to develop internal champions to help drive interest in manufacturing.
Naturally, students aren’t the only ones with misconceptions when it comes to manufacturing careers. Parents often are just as misinformed and likely to steer their children away from the industry in favor of a traditional college degree. One of the best ways to address this roadblock is by bringing parents – and resistant educators – into the facility to educate them as well.
“You have to educate those people who are helping kids make decisions,” said Daniels. “You have to encourage parents to come with kids to see the facilities, to participate in the events at schools.”
“Some teachers have suggested doing ‘adult learning’ for parents,” Hecker added.
“Today, kids feel like they need to go to college even if they don’t know what they want to do,” stated Myers. To combat this mindset, “Century Die has begun marketing its apprenticeship program as a four-year program/skills trade college – one with no tuition bill.”
Get management on board
Of course, it’s not just parents and educators who stand as potential roadblocks when it comes to successful workforce development. Too often, mold building leadership is resistant to the idea of making the necessary commitments to developing a talent pipeline – even when in their best interest.
“A lot of companies are looking to hire younger employees,” said Hecker. “However, they don’t really want to actually invest the time.” And workforce development on the scale that will be needed to combat the growing labor shortage is most definitely a time commitment. As Pfenninger noted, “No workforce development strategy – particularly one that revolves around the development and maintenance of relationships – can be developed overnight.” It takes years of dedicated effort to fully reap the rewards of implementing these kinds of programs.
“Mold builders need to be open to the idea that people need to be trained,” said Krista Barr, director of employee development for TK Mold & Engineering, Romeo, Michigan. To that end, TK Mold is especially involved with working with local Romeo High School students, helping build up a new generation of skilled trades. The company offers students real hands-on experiences by having them work on live assignments. Owner Tom Barr works directly with the students to give back to the community and excite students on the processes of moldmaking.
Additionally, TK Mold’s apprenticeship program, which is partnered with Macomb Community College, also promotes workforce development by giving employees the necessary skills to thrive in their career development. “For today’s market, you have to look at hiring for talent/tendency, not experience,” said Barr.
Once management is on board and prepared to invest the time and resources needed to put a workforce development plan in place, the rewards will be significant, with long-term benefits for everyone involved.