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How to develop the skilled trades

Aug. 22, 2018
Manufacturing and education work together to deliver the people and skills needed

The life of a contract packager can best be described as riding a rollercoaster—moments of sheer terror intermixed with brief moments of calm before plunging into the next breathtaking curve. Like most manufacturing facilities, ours has seen an increasing demand over the past two years. This would normally be met with great excitement, but the never-ending ride has been further enhanced by an ever-decreasing ready workforce. A recent trip with an associate to check out some equipment purchases revealed that we are not alone. From Illinois through Wisconsin to Minnesota and back, the signs were everywhere—Help Wanted. While this trend toward job vacancies has been active for a couple of years now, I had the sudden realization that this might have a more serious impact on the economy than originally thought.

Much has been written recently about the lack of people in trades. This is not a new phenomenon but it has taken on an impactful side note. The Help Wanted signs weren’t restricted to retail; they were everywhere. Companies have resorted to renting out billboards, at significantly higher expense, to advertise the need for skilled trades. While the miles passed by on our trip, it occurred to me that retail and manufacturing are competing for the same source of people. The difference is, with the lack of sufficient skilled tradespeople, retail is winning this battle. Or is it?

My employer has felt the impact of the slump in skilled tradespeople for some time now. My very presence in the United States, with my newly minted green-card status, is evidence of a long-vacant need. My employer searched unsuccessfully for nearly five years prior to my arrival on the scene. Others, I am sure, have waited much longer. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and, in typical fashion, my employer reached out to the local community colleges to help them to formulate programs that better-suited our need for skilled trades. While we are not alone in doing this, the fruits of our labors are somewhat slow in coming to pass. It takes some time to get the wheels in motion. Recently I learned that others in the manufacturing community are struggling with this issue, so we are not alone.

As part of our ongoing interaction with the two community colleges in our area, we have been working with one of our primary hardware suppliers to help facilitate a meeting between academia and manufacturing to share our common concerns. Those efforts came to fruition, and we recently assembled a great group from local manufacturing facilities, colleges and, to my great surprise, a local public school district. The very fact that all these people gathered together for this event is a clear indication that we all feel the crunch of the need for changes to the relationship between manufacturing and education.

The meeting kicked off with a slideshow presentation highlighting the upward trend in the demand for skilled trades and the downward trend in the availability of said trades. Commentary from the manufacturing side of the room confirmed the downward trend in not only maintenance trades, but workers in general. The economy is booming, but the availability of workers for production is at a critical point. The emphasis in the past 15 years or more has been on university graduates. One attendee commented that the mentality could be described as: “You have to graduate university, or you are not a success.” Most agreed that this mentality has created the void that we now experience in manufacturing. There simply aren’t enough doers.

The next part of the presentation covered what this particular vendor was doing to engage with both colleges and universities to work hardware-specific training into the curriculum. The general consensus in the room was that manufacturers would have a distinct advantage if graduate students came to them with training specific to the hardware used at the manufacturer.

Without naming names, the vendor hosting this event has gone to great lengths to create relevant curricula to cover its major PLC platforms and classroom kits to go with them. The kits include not only the hardware, but the lessons are geared toward real-world applications. This vendor is working with more than 50 college-level programs and more being added all the time.

The need for relevant training on specific hardware brought up an interesting point. For the hardware vendor, it makes sense that it would highlight its latest technology as that would introduce people into the workforce that would be more likely to use its recent training to influence the purchase of more of the same hardware that they just learned.

However, for the user of the equipment, while training in the latest technology is relevant, a large installed base of older hardware would benefit from trained individuals in this older technology. It is a credit to the hardware vendors that their products have lasted so long, but, in many cases, the hardware is still in use while the people that originally installed it have retired.

A different thread of commentary came up at this point. Most of the manufacturing representatives agreed with a comment about needing more doers as opposed to engineers. What was lacking most were trade-school and apprenticeship-program graduates.

Another representative said that, for him, it was engineers that were needed, but his was the minority situation. Someone else mentioned the 7-2-1 staffing requirement. For every one engineer, there needs to be two technologists/technicians and seven skilled tradespersons. The employer that needed engineers was in the automotive industry, where traditionally the trades are well paid and tend to stay around once employed. That industry tends to be top-loaded in the trades and technicians. For the other disciplines, the consensus was that skilled trades are sorely lacking. With the added pressure of not being able to get enough people to staff the production lines, the outlook is bleak.

The discussion turned toward what could be done to help the situation we all seem to be in. Most of the manufacturers are, in fact, working at some level with local educators to try and direct the potential graduates to their facilities.

The educators would love to have more students come through their programs but lament about the lack of funding to boost up the curriculum. Let’s face it, the hardware vendor isn’t going to give the labs and lesson plans away for free. Several attendees postulated that perhaps a group of manufacturers contributing a portion of the funds each would be one way to get the equipment into the college labs.

In addition to the labs and lesson plans, there are other ways that manufacturers can contribute to the education institutions. For example, my employer recently donated a used palletizing robot to one of our local colleges, which, in turn, traded it to another vendor in exchange for two smaller robots, more suitable to the classroom size and power requirements.

The message here is not all donations have to be monetary. Manufacturing facilities replace perfectly good equipment as part of attrition planning, and there is no reason these components can’t have a second life at a local school.

The final major topic of the day was to discuss ways to engage young people in the field of manufacturing and, specifically, the trades that support manufacturing. The obvious reason most of us were in the room that day was the connection between manufacturers and the educators at the college or university level. However, referring back to an earlier comment about the need for doers rather than planners—technicians vs. engineers—the point was made that a graduate of a four-year university program isn’t going to come and work as a maintenance person with all that student-loan debt. The most likely candidate for that kind of work would be a two-year community-college graduate, but those people are also scarce.

The conversation then drifted into lamenting about the lack of interest from high-school students in going into the two-year programs at the college level. The comment was made that many kids go into high school having no idea what they want to do with their lives, and they come out feeling the same way.

The colleges have a tough time soliciting potential students because their usual recruits don’t know what they want to do and are rightly not interested in paying money to find out.

The subject then shifted to how we get high-school kids involved in technical trades. Well, the answer was they have to have that interest coming into high school. Someone commented that they don’t have that interest because they took shop out of middle school. Insert here the silence that then enveloped the room.

How can we encourage kids to be interested in taking things apart and putting them back together if we take away the environment that encouraged that in the first place? We quickly recovered and basically went around the assembled group, adding commentary about lack of funding and liability risk as major reasons why shop isn’t taught in public school. There were more than a few sad faces, but we had hit the nail right on the head. We had, through insisting that success meant a university education and eliminating the risk rather than find ways to deal with it, guaranteed that the workforce of the future didn’t have technical trades in it.

The problem, of course, is that we need technical trades as much today as we did in the past, and in many ways we need them even more.

The highly technical nature of manufacturing practices absolutely needs advanced skill sets from the people responsible for looking after those processes and equipment. If we don’t set actions in motion to re-engage our youth, then this problem is just going to get much worse. At this point in the roundtable discussion, a voice of hope spoke up. Attending this conference was a coordinator with the local public school district. Her news was that these concepts are not dead, and her district, for one, was actively involved in re-engaging public school students in technical trades. The startling piece of information was that the target student wasn’t a junior or senior in high school but students as early as fifth and sixth grades.

Take a moment to think about this. Children, generally, first gain an idea of self as they start public school. Aside from learning to read, write and do arithmetic, they learn to interact with other children. Most importantly, this is the point in life where their imagination is sparked. This is, indeed, the moment where we need to offer up the possibility of not just being a doctor or a lawyer but of being an electronics technician or an auto mechanic or a millwright.

Now, you might think that is a bit extreme, but it isn’t really. Any one of those career aspirations can be seen as glamorous. I know, for instance, that my particular career doesn’t pay as much as some production workers earn at the automotive assembly plant right up the road.

Why can’t that be a career aspiration? Why can’t we see equipment maintenance as a viable career choice?

Coming away from this conference, I felt inspired. Perhaps there are better days ahead for us. It will take some work—hard, determined work—but we can right this ship and re-engage our youth into careers that are practical and provide a necessary service to society while also putting a roof over their heads and food on the table.

I want to thank the people who volunteered to attend the conference that day. They will be getting a copy of this article as my way to let them know that each and every one of them had an impact on me that day, and I hope that my report of our collective experience has an impact on those who will read this column when it is published. The common thread, after all, is people and it will take people to make manufacturing a target career again.

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About the author: Rick Rice
About the Author

Rick Rice | Contributing Editor

Rick Rice is a controls engineer at Crest Foods, a dry-foods manufacturing and packaging company in Ashton, Illinois. With more than 30 years’ experience in the field of automation, Rice has designed and programmed everything from automotive assembly, robots, palletizing and depalletizing equipment, conveyors and forming machines for the plastics industry but most of his career has focused on OEM in the packaging machinery industry with a focus on R&D for custom applications. 

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