Weeklong activities in north metro highlight skills gap in manufacturing
- Article by: Anna Pratt
- Special to the Star Tribune
- October 22, 2013 - 1:52 PM
More jobs are cropping up in manufacturing, but there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill them, say a number of those in the sector.
That’s one of the messages being conveyed this week — Minnesota Manufacturers Week, an annual event that runs through Sunday. It aims to bring attention to manufacturing by offering tours of companies, speakers, information expos and more at various venues across the state.
Sarah Thompson is a recruiter for Cretex Cos. which includes RMS, a medical device manufacturer in Coon Rapids that’s opening its doors Thursday afternoon. She said Manufacturers Week is a good way “to get people excited about opportunities in manufacturing.”
Cretex has openings for machinists, quality technicians, manufacturing technicians, molding technicians and fabricators. Thompson can vouch for a technical skills gap: “We feel it and we know others feel the same pain,” she said.
Jaime Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association, an organizer of Minnesota Manufacturers Week, said the event underscores the importance of manufacturing to the state’s economy and the job opportunities it creates.
Manufacturing has picked up quite a bit statewide, she said — more specifically, as the recession has eased.
“We’ve seen a definite uptick in agriculture, automotive and medical industries,” Nolan said.
That also means companies are facing the challenge that Thompson mentioned. Companies are growing but jobs are going unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers, she said.
Nolan said “young adults aren’t exposed to [manufacturing-type skills] in high school like they were years ago.” Also, she said, through the years manufacturing has struggled to shake negative connotations: “A lot of people still think of the old, dirty, grungy blue-collar job. They don’t know the technology being used,” which often requires math knowledge, she said.
Some north metro groups are working together to raise awareness about manufacturing opportunities.
For example, the city of Coon Rapids partnered with Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Anoka Technical College and the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce on a movie screening and expo Tuesday night.
Matthew Salo, who leads Anoka-Ramsey’s medical device manufacturing program, agreed that “there aren’t a ton of people on the pipeline. … As people retire, where are we going to find these workers?”
People forget that manufacturing “touches our lives daily, from doorknobs to automobiles,” he said.
Career opportunities range from engineering to computer-operated machining.
On the plus side, many students are graduating with computer skills, Salo said. Considering that most manufacturers are using high technology, that’s helpful.
Matthew Brown, a community development specialist for Coon Rapids, said manufacturing is a big part of the city’s economic base. Brown cited a survey from last year showing that manufacturing jobs in Coon Rapids increased by 18 percent between 2009 and 2012.
Most of these came from existing businesses that expanded. “A lot of those businesses reduced their workforce through the recession, but now they’re hiring back at higher levels than before,” he said.
Brown said he’s also picked up much anecdotal evidence “from local manufacturers that they’ve had difficulty finding skilled employees, particularly machinists.”
That’s partly because of a longtime perception that “manufacturing was on the decline and the jobs were moving overseas,” he said. “This discouraged a lot of younger people from entering careers in manufacturing.”
Now, increased transportation costs and higher overseas wages have led many companies to shift manufacturing to the U.S. “In a lot of cases, it makes more sense for manufacturers to be closer to where their products will be used,” he said.
In some cases, companies are working to train people themselves. Lisa Rivera, a business analyst at Steinwall Inc. in Coon Rapids, said the company is gearing up for the launch of certified technician training. That will help those who arrive at Steinwall without transferable skills, she said.
Right now, the company is hiring several new operators, plus an accountant, a buyer and a highly skilled machine technician. “We’ve definitely had downturns over the past few years but we’re seeing an upswing now.”
For a complete list of Minnesota Manufacturing Week events, go to the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association’s website at www.mpma.com.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.
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