As skilled labor shortage looms, efforts aim to recruit students

By RILEY MURDOCK
Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan manufacturers continue to experience a skilled labor shortage, and specialty education programs across the state are aiming to fill the gap with young workers.

While unskilled jobs are fading, workers for pretty much any skilled job are needed across the industry, said Michigan Manufacturers Association President Chuck Hadden.

Employers are currently poaching workers from each other to fill staffing holes, he said.

“Welders — I can get almost any of those people jobs any place in the state,” Hadden said. “If you’ve got a skill of some sort, (employers) will help work with you. If you’ve got a skill, I’ll find you a place you want.”

According to Gov. Rick Snyder’s Marshall Plan for Talent released in February, Michigan will have 811,000 career openings to fill through 2024 in fields with talent shortages, 109,410 of which are estimated to be manufacturing jobs.

Snyder’s plan calls for an additional $100 million in new program funding, complementing $225 million in existing talent development funding.

The demand for workers is so great that employers are often willing to pay for workers’ educations to properly train them for open positions, Hadden said.

“If you want to work for them and have the start of the skills, workers can work during the day and take community college classes at night at company’s dimes,” Hadden said.

An example is the Michigan Advanced Technician Training Program, better known as “MAT2.”

Instituted by Snyder, the program follows a work/school model in which employers “sponsor” student workers, paying for their studies and employing them part-time for a three-year period, said Mark Lagerwey, the associate director of business development at Baker College of Cadillac.

After students graduate with an associate degree in mechatronics, IT, product design or computer numerical control, they are contractually obligated to work for the company for at least two years.

Baker College of Cadillac will graduate its first class of 14 MAT2 students on May 4, Lagerwey said.

Oakland Community College and Henry Ford College also have MAT2 programs.

“There’s a huge need for these people,” Lagerwey said. “The industries spend a lot of money training these people, but they know that they would probably be spending more money on (manufacturing) lines being down.”

The shortage is exacerbated by demographic shifts in the industry, not just in Michigan but nationwide, Lagerwey said. There aren’t enough people coming into the industry to replace the number leaving, roughly 10,000 a day, he said.

“The baby boomers are retiring, that’s a fact,” Lagerwey said. “There’s a huge need for skilled people in many, many areas, but this is certainly one critical area that’s being addressed with a pretty innovative program.”

If the MAT2 program has struggled with anything, Lagerwey said, it’s the same struggle the rest of the industry faces: Getting young people and students interested.

“There is a skills gap in many areas, from health care to manufacturing. And there’s a lot of factors that came together — low unemployment, baby boomers retiring — put all those things together it was kind of a perfect storm,” Lagerwey said. “Finding people, students, has been one of the biggest challenges. It’s hard work, but we’re making headway.”

That’s in part an issue of proper marketing to students and parents, Lagerwey said, because many parents don’t think manufacturing jobs exist anymore, and those who do think what’s left are “dirty jobs.”

While such jobs still exist, Lagerwey said the industry’s growth is focused in well-paying jobs in high-tech environments rather than the assembly line jobs long associated with the field.

“Now you need people who can manage robots as opposed to people who do what robots do,” Lagerwey said.

Hadden agrees that the perception of factories as dark, dirty and dangerous is a barrier to getting youths to pursue manufacturing trades. The Manufacturers Association  combats that misperception through initiatives such as “Manufacturing Day” on the first of October every year, which focuses on getting prospective workers into plants, factories and shops for tours.

“Michigan does more of these events than any other state in the union,” Hadden said. “I would not be afraid to open up my facility and show it to people, and show them what we’re doing and the skills that are going to be needed.”

Hadden said such events have seen an uptick in participation in the last two years as the labor market has tightened.

“If you can get the high school kids interested and they can see the kind of money they can make and the job that they’ll have, they’re going to flock to it at that point,” Hadden said.