Training programs flourish as mechanics, metal and factory workers highly sought

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 8, 2013 - 11:20 AM

Industrial repairmen and mechanics are in high demand as state’s economy accelerates.


Marty Zanmiller of Cottage Grove worked on a pipe exercise during training at the L.J. Shosten Union Traing Center in St. Paul. Training for industrial jobs has picked up around the state as factories rush to erase job skills gap and prep for baby boomer departures. Industrial mill wright and pile driver apprentices were in training at the L.J. Shosten Union Traing Center doing welding, optics training and possibly helping to install robotics donated by Ford Motor Co.] Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune Marty Zanmiller/source


Sparks shot across the room at the L.J. Shosten Training Center in St. Paul as apprentices welded pipes and ground prickly steel to a smooth finish. Nearby, others hovered over a misaligned motor like doctors tending a patient.

Workers with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters union have been feverishly busy, yet Paul Trudeau remains worried. “We are short on manpower,” said Trudeau, the head of training for Minnesota’s next generation of industrial repairmen and mechanics for the union.

With an estimated shortage of 600,000 industrial workers nationwide, a movement has begun to build a larger, highly skilled manufacturing workforce. Trade unions, businesses, and colleges in Minnesota and across the country are investing millions to train workers in manufacturing, construction and industrial machinery.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Labor committed $58 million toward job retraining efforts in Minnesota, and the state followed with $9.3 million of its own.

The growing demand for workers coincides with the rebound in construction and manufacturing. Across the Twin Cities, more than $1.7 billion in building projects are scheduled to begin within the next few years, including stadiums, highways, light rail, and mall and factory expansions. Those jobs alone call for more than 20,000 workers by 2015, and analysts wonder if there will be enough to go around.

Openings in manufacturing range from advanced machinists to quality-control technicians, and many positions require workers to have a range of skills in math, computers or engineering. Already, Minnesota companies are having difficultly filling an estimated 25,000 jobs at factories and technical firms, citing a lack of suitable workers.

“We are in a critical moment of time to make this transition,” said Darlene Miller, CEO of Permac Industries in Burnsville and a member of President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

Miller and other executives cite a decade of stress on the manufacturing workforce for the current gap, including layoffs and factory upgrades that made some positions obsolete. Many potential workers moved to nonmanufacturing jobs when the sector appeared to be weakening further during the recession.

And the nature of industrial work has been rapidly changing, prompting calls to recalibrate college curriculums and expand training programs.

All the while, the number of workers who know how to fit pipes, build foundations and maintain turbines is shrinking as baby boomers exit factories, power plants and refineries. The Manufacturing Institute, a Washington, D.C., research group, estimates that the labor shortages will get worse over the next three years.

“There is already a gap of 35- to 50-year-olds,” Trudeau said. “The truth of the matter is our contractors are going to be lacking for workers.”

Opportunities abound

Several Minnesota companies are creating more internship positions in an effort to develop more skilled workers.

In Fridley, on-the-job internships are being offered for metal stampers. St. Paul, Burnsville and Duluth have similar opportunities for mechanical millwrights, those who install, dismantle or repair machinery. Internships also have opened for construction and garment machine workers in Minneapolis.

The carpenters union in St. Paul recently increased its mechanical millwright and pile driver apprenticeships by 60 percent to 105 positions. The group wants even more and has sent recruiters to engage trade schools.

Meanwhile, the union’s 600 Minnesota members are busy doing technical maintenance at a variety of industrial complexes, including the Flint Hills refinery, Sappi and Blandin paper mills, Xcel’s Sherburne County power plant and the Gerdau steel mill.

Such activity has Shane Jacobson of Maplewood feeling optimistic about his next job opportunity. In 2009, Jacobson, now 35, was laid off from his manufacturing job at H&B Elevators Inc. Today, he’s busy repairing windmills and turbines, building conveyors for Delta Air Lines and fixing motors for AllTech Engineering.

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  • William Fish of Webster, Wis., worked on a pipe exercise during training at the L.J. Shosten Union Training Center in St. Paul. Training for industrial jobs has picked up around the state as factories rush to erase a job skills gap and prepare for baby boomer departures. .

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