Manufacturers in the U.S., regardless of size, specialty or location, are reporting a dire shortage of skilled workers such as welders, fabricators, laser operators, electricians, press brake operators and machinists. A survey of FMA members conducted in 2007 revealed the biggest challenge they face is the dwindling supply of skilled workers, cited by some 40 percent of those polled, far surpassing other concerns.
The annual talent shortage survey by Manpower, Inc. of the 10 most difficult jobs to fill corroborates the FMA finding. The poll states that engineers, machinists, and skilled trade workers are the three positions most challenging to fill in 2008.
It may surprise many that one resolution to this shortage situation and to attract the next generation of workers is a concept employers have used for centuries — the apprenticeship and its cousin, the internship. Their value has never been so significant and appreciated; young people are exposed to the exciting opportunities in manufacturing while companies have a chance to recruit, evaluate and hire needed employees.
Gateway to the Future
Joe Chiaramonte, plant manager of Midwest Metal Products, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has employed high school students for several years through a paid internship program. "Our ultimate goal is to get interns to work for us full time after they complete schooling," he said. Based on the success of the program, Chiaramonte expects to increase the number of interns at the plant to as many as six by next year.
"You can't beat on-the-job training coupled with classroom training," said Chiaramonte. "These students learn valuable skills throughout the year and oftentimes become full-time employees at our plant."
BEGNEAUD Manufacturing, Lafayette, Louisiana, offers a summer internship program for both high school and college level students. BEGNEAUD works in liaison with the local schools to create a customized program for each student's specific area of study. "We typically employ three interns per summer, and past students have participated in a variety of niches at the company, including engineering, industrial technology, IT, marketing, mechanical engineering and even product design," said Andre Begneaud, co-owner of BEGNEAUD Manufacturing.
The company also offers an internship exchange program. In May, a trade student from France worked on an assigned project to identify international businesses that might be interested in working with BEGNEAUD.
"Like many in the industry, finding skilled labor and retaining employees are major concerns for our company," said Begneaud. "We're always short of welders/fabricators because it's a constant skill building position, and we also seek workers who operate press brakes, cut with saws, and work with hand tools. We could hire 10 people today if they were available."
"The internship is designed to get more young people interested in working at our company while fulfilling their educational requirements," she added.
Learning by Mentor
To further meet the demand for skilled labor, some employers encourage apprenticeships as a means of encouraging prospective employees and young people to enter the field. Others issue signing bonuses and incentives to skilled workers trained in apprenticeship programs.
Midwest Metal Products offers an apprenticeship program to as many as three local high school students per year through a program Chiaramonte developed through the Iowa Department of Labor (DOL). "The apprenticeship program is another pipeline to our future workforce," said Chiaramonte. "The mentors provide these students a wealth of knowledge gained over the years and `hands on' training in a real world environment."
BEGNEAUD also offers an in-house apprenticeship program that introduces employees to every metalworking process at the company on a rotating basis. Currently, four employees are involved in an apprenticeship and partner with an experienced operator or skilled craftsmen mentor for three months for each specific practice. "This initiative gives individuals the opportunity to experience all of the processes at our company and instills a well-rounded knowledge of our operation," said Mark Faul, apprentice trainer with BEGNEAUD Manufacturing. "It helps identify the area in which they excel so we can guide them in that direction and then ultimately offer a position at the company."
Based on the success of the in-house apprenticeship, BEGNEAUD Manufacturing is now developing a registered apprenticeship program with the Louisiana DOL similar to the in-house program but more structured. This paid program will consist of 2,900 hours learning all of the different processes at the company and 155 hours of classroom instruction. It must be completed within 2? years. "Not only do we compensate the apprentices, but they also are eligible to receive a grant from the state government," said Phil Bihm, apprenticeship program coordinator with BEGNEAUD Manufacturing. "Upon successful completion, employees will receive a certificate from the DOL for passing the course, and we will have the first opportunity to employ them."
To develop the program, Bihm reviewed several current apprenticeship courses and reviewed the National Institute of Metalworking Skills program for guidance in designing the apprenticeship.
Bihm then submitted a summary of the curriculum to the Louisiana DOL and will work with a compliance officer later this year to receive approval to commence. He hopes to have his first registrant in 2009. "This program will be the first advanced manufacturing apprenticeship in Louisiana and state officials are enthusiastic about our application," said Bihm. "By establishing a registered program that complements our long standing in-house apprenticeship program, we are creating a win-win for both Louisiana and for BEGNEAUD.
"We also will be placed on a student accessible database that lists companies offering apprenticeship programs throughout the country so young people can research our program and apply if interested," added Bihm.
Reaching Educators and Students
Reaching prospective interns and apprentices is half the battle. Education priorities today rarely position manufacturing as a preferred career choice. This is one conclusion reached by the U.S. Department of Labor when one of its economic reports stated, "Too few young people consider manufacturing careers and often are unaware of the skills needed in an advanced manufacturing environment. Similarly, the K-12 system neither adequately imparts the necessary skills nor educates students on manufacturing career opportunities."
Chiaramonte agrees. "Our biggest challenge is getting high school counselors and principals to realize that manufacturing is a viable option for these students," he said. "For some reason, manufacturing is not a good buzz word in the schools.
"At the same time, parents don't want their kids working in manufacturing environments," said Chiaramonte. "Yet, as high school students tour our clean, modern factory, they are thrilled to see the futuristic lasers and robotics."
The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA), based in Rockford, Ill., focuses on helping the metal fabricating industry develop its future workforce.? Through its charitable foundation, the FMA offers scholarships for students who attend technical schools, colleges and universities to prepare for manufacturing careers, and fund manufacturing summer camps throughout North America which often serve as a student's first introduction to a manufacturing career. The FMA also assists colleges and technical schools with curriculum development and equipment acquisition to make training programs available to meet local career development needs.
Contact: Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, Int'l., 833 Featherstone Rd., Rockford, IL 61107 815-399-8775 fax: 815-484-7701 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: http://www.fmanet.org