A tour of Ultra Machining Co. last year sold Bonnie Doucette on becoming a machinist.

“The industry seems to be OK, and UMC is a good place to work,” said Doucette, an 18-year-old freshman at St. Cloud Technical & Community College.

The state has smoothed her career path with a $6,000-a year-scholarship through a program that directs people to manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, Doucette credits apprenticeships at Wright Technical Center and Ultra Machining with helping her in coursework.

“It gave me a leg up,” she said.

The personal touch and public-private partnership that are giving Doucette a shot at a skilled production position represent the kind of cooperation experts say Minnesota must have to fill manufacturing jobs.

Federal programs that pump money into science, technology, engineering and math — known as STEM education — do not guarantee a solid return on investment, said University of Illinois workforce expert Andrew Weaver.

Skill mismatches alone explain just 14 percent of manufacturers’ hiring difficulties, according to a 2013 survey by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Most of the time it’s a mixture of missing skills, turnover in sought-after jobs such as machining and “declining interest in skilled production as a career track.”

Manufacturing companies absolutely need applicants with improved math and reading skills, Weaver’s research shows. But just as much, the current manufacturing climate demands “ongoing and constant feedback and communications” between individual employers and educators, Weaver said.

“It is not so much that the demand for skills spiked and American workers didn’t get the memo,” Weaver noted. “The average manufacturing plant size has declined 40 percent in the past 40 years. Manufacturing today is a plant of 50 to 100 people. We don’t have those 10,000-person Bethlehem Steel plants like we used to.”

Some of the millions of public dollars now going to general STEM education would be better spent helping companies establish on-the-job training tailored to their business, Ultra Machining human resources director Jaci Dukowitz said.

“We need help setting up a good apprenticeship program,” she said. “We’re running a company, not developing curricula.”

Creative recruiting

With state manufacturers reporting difficulty in hiring for two-thirds of available jobs, the challenge has become training and recruiting. Ideally, employers say, students should train on state-of-the-art equipment and sometimes on specific brands of machinery. And schools should have close relationships with employers.

Ultra Machining, a 200-person family-owned business in Monticello, courts shop teachers at local high schools. “We love to bring students here to see our robotics and automation,” Dukowitz said.

Minneapolis-based Graco, a publicly traded, multibillion-dollar, multinational manufacturer, assigns “college captains” to colleges and technical schools and provides scholarships through its charitable foundation to get qualified applicants.

Graco’s Hennepin Tech captain Eric Galush said he helped the Eden Prairie school acquire a Mazak lathe because he “wanted to get students familiar with what we use.”

Minnesota has set up a flexible matching fund to encourage such private largesse in manufacturing skills training. Minnesota’s $7 million-a-year leveraged equipment program lets schools apply for cash grants based on the value of private donations they receive. In one notable example, Hennepin Tech used the value of hail-damaged Fords donated to its auto body and mechanical repair program to leverage nearly $117,000 in state money to buy a new supermarket refrigeration system to teach heating, ventilation and air conditioning students.

Rebuilding the middle class

It is the kind of creative thinking that politicians and public officials across the country and state hope will help rebuild and strengthen the middle class.

Recessions in 2001 and 2008, together with automation and outsourcing, cut manufacturing jobs in Minnesota from a high of roughly 400,000 in 2000. But the sector has slowly added jobs in recent years, growing from 288,300 in January 2010 to 317,500 in July 2016. While some manufacturing sectors remain in decline, the notion that foreign countries used low wages to permanently take U.S. jobs is not a given, state officials say.

“Minnesota has always had a unique niche in locally produced parts, from Andersen Windows to all the medical device manufacturers,” said Mary Rothchild, senior system director for workforce development for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. “Our sense is the manufacturing industry is strong and looking for more workers.”

A cultural shift

The collective effort required to sustain and increase a manufacturing talent pool extends beyond classrooms and on-the-job training to culture. A tough decade in the economy created uncertainty about the future of U.S. manufacturing and left some potential workers reluctant to apply for jobs. There is also an industry image problem — what Graco’s Galush calls the myth of the “grimy postwar-era job.”

Hennepin Tech graduate Trevor Klick, a 25-year-old machinist, sought assurances about job security before taking a job at Graco.

“They said they had never laid off a machinist,” he said. “If things get slow, they move you over to the assembly side or the warehouse.”

Mike McGee, a former college dean who now directs education-industry partnerships for the Minnesota State system, says wages have started to move up in the past 18 months. McGee works with advisory committees made up of manufacturing industry representatives. They talk about equipment needs and trends. Efforts also include summer camps in robotics for school kids and bringing kindergartners to see technical training schools.

“We want to expose children, parents and teachers to careers that pay high wages, have advancement and are satisfying,” McGee said.

The message came through clearly to Grace McGee as she pondered higher education options. McGee, who is not related to Mike McGee, was a member of the robotics team at her high school in Chanhassen. Her father arranged for her to visit Wyoming Machine, a precision metal fabrication company in Stacy run by sisters Traci and Lori Tapani.

“It was really cool,” Grace McGee said.

Cool enough that she chose machinist training at Alexandria Technical & Community College over a university education. “If you find what you really love and it’s a two-year program, don’t back down,” she advised.

Galush poses a more direct question to talented people choosing between four-year degrees and two-year technical programs:

“Do you want to be $120,000 in debt coming out of school looking for a job, or do you want to get someone to help pay for school and come out with a job that pays $25 an hour?”