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Applicants lack the new hard and soft skills required for modern manufacturing



TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - Vigor Industrial employee Clayton Kinder Jr. welds a part on an 83,000-barrel tank barge for Harley Marine Services. Vigor provides living-wage jobs for employees in the trades.Many of the region’s manufacturers and workforce training programs recently joined forces to get out the message that they have jobs to fill — for applicants with the right skills.

“The crisis right now is not having the people to fill the manufacturing jobs that we have,” says Ken Madden, vice-president of sales and marketing for employment agency Madden Industrial Craftsmen. “Manufacturers are adjusting their production based on those shortages,” he says, “that’s not good for manufacturers or the state.”

Whether it’s high-tech microprocessor production, rail car production by Portland’s Gunderson, or ship repair by Vigor Industrial, manufacturing represents a massive component of the region’s gross domestic product. According to 2013 numbers from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Oregon ranked second in the nation for the contribution of manufacturing to the state’s overall GDP. According to their study, 29.8 percent of the state’s GDP came from manufacturing.

You are not alone

Many experts feel that the current pool of available talent lacks the basic skills necessary for even entry-level positions. That challenge was the topic of a recent forum of Oregon and southwest Washington workforce development groups, employment agencies and employers, presented by the Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative. With the economy growing again, most industrial employers are facing similar issues, and they’re working to create partnerships where they can pool resources to develop a pipeline of workers for open positions.

An overriding theme of the conference is that businesses don’t have to go it alone. With coalitions such as the Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative, the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership network and others, there are resources that can be tapped into by businesses large and small.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - Ken Madden of Madden Industrial Craftsmen says that the manufacturing industry needs to reach into non-traditional populations for new manufacturing employees. He also feels that its essential for companies to invest in training for both new and current employees. “You are connected,” says Lynn Stephen of Microchip Technology, “you don’t have to go it alone.”

“The problem right now is that we are all saying the same thing, but we’re going in different directions,” says Madden, “we need to speak with one voice.” Madden outlined his views on a proper

pathway that includes changing the image of manufacturing work, internal workforce-based training, recruiting non-traditional industrial employees, validating applicants skills, investing in training and building partnerships.

Of those, changing the image of manufacturing is one of the more challenging. Many don’t realize how rewarding a career in manufacturing can be. For a minimal educational investment, you can get in the door and advance your position, according to Jesse Aronson, senior project manager with Worksystems.

Training opportunities are available from many sources, but “we’re really challenged to even fill those trainings,” says Aronson, “it’s not on folk’s radar.”

To showcase manufacturing careers, businesses are encouraged to support Manufacturing Day, an annual event where employers open their doors to the next generation of potential employees, showing them what modern manufacturing is all about, and hoping to get them excited about industrial careers.

Jay Schmidt, vice president and general manager at Silicon Forest Electronics puts it even more simply.

“Try to create those tipping points in manufacturing to make it cool,” he says.

The average pay in the manufacturing segment was $71,603 in 2013, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. Even entry-level wages for skilled positions easily eclipse minimum wage and the entry-level compensation in other employment segments.

Skills that pay the bills?

While many openings elicit a flood of job applicants, a shortage of those with proper job skills makes hiring them difficult. So what are the skills that employers are looking for?

Aronson says the basics of communications, teamwork, reliability, safety and problem solving.

“It’s really those behavioral skills that we’re looking for,” says Julie Hugo, the learning and development coordinator at Blount International. She contends that if candidates have those basic competencies, the company can train them with their industry-specific skills.

Internal training processes for both new and existing employees are expected to become a necessity throughout the manufacturing industry, and will serve to fill the skills gap created by the decline in vocational education at the high school and, to a lesser extent, at the community college level.

Another challenge is the cyclical nature of many manufacturing businesses, including the region’s massive semiconductor industry.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - Many manufacturers are filling current shortages by having existing employees perform overtime. Panelists agreed at a recent forum they need to make manufacturing 'cool' to appeal to young people. Many of the hiring managers at the forum mirrored the thoughts of Brandon Purk of Owens Corning. “Right now it’s just ‘give me bodies’,” he says, “I’d like to have a different strategy.”

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