A NEW approach to the Skills Gap

For over a decade, the Northeast Wisconsin (NEW) Manufacturing Alliance has been working to address the region's shortage of skilled labor and redefine the manufacturing industry's image.
By Andy Bushmaker, KI; Ann Franz, NEW Manufacturing Alliance September 20, 2017

Teacher. Doctor. Lawyer. Ask high schoolers what they want to be when they grow up, and you might expect any of these answers.Alex Peters, a senior automation specialist, operates a robotic machine at furniture manufacturer KI’s plant in Green Bay, Wis. Images; Courtesy Northeast Wisconsin (NEW) Manufacturing Alliance.

But ask high schoolers in Wisconsin and you might hear something else. Robotics specialist. Mechanical engineer. Welder.

That’s due in large part to the efforts of a cohort of industry leaders in Northeast Wisconsin. For over a decade, the Northeast Wisconsin (NEW) Manufacturing Alliance has been working to address the region’s shortage of skilled labor and redefine the manufacturing industry’s image. The group works with primary and secondary schools, universities, and technical colleges to introduce young people to the manufacturing industry.

Founded in 2006, the Alliance is the brainchild of Paul Rauscher, CEO of Wisconsin-based EMT International, which makes printing, converting, and packaging equipment. Rauscher experienced firsthand the challenges associated with building a workforce in the manufacturing industry—from finding skilled workers to changing the stigma that industrial jobs are dirty or dangerous.

Many of these obstacles persist today.

Rauscher believed that bringing area manufacturers together could be the beginning of a solution. Four companies attended the first meeting of the Alliance. Since then, the organization has grown to include over 210 members.Alex Peters confers with a colleague at the KI manufacturing plant. Students at the plant gain guidance and hands-on experience, and companies have a pipeline for new talent. More than 200 companies are members of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance.

The group’s diverse membership roster includes companies in the furniture, food, machinery, metal products, and transportation sectors. Household names like Kohler, Sargento, Nature’s Way, and Georgia-Pacific are among them.

The Alliance has found success by enabling collaboration. To stabilize and grow their workforces, manufacturers have joined forces with educators to create mutually-beneficial partnerships with area schools.

At the heart of these partnerships is openness. Manufacturers offer skills-training and youth apprenticeship opportunities to high schoolers. Those students are then prepared to take on highly-skilled manufacturing jobs upon graduation.

The Alliance applies the material that students are learning in the classroom to the real-world. One such initiative is the "Get Real Math" curriculum, which helps teachers answer the age-old student inquiry: "When will I ever use this?"

The Alliance’s video series—filmed on-site at local companies—demonstrates practical uses for math in the workplace. From calculating the reach of a robotic welding arm at the contract furniture manufacturer KI, to developing the perfect proportions for a multi-cheese blend at Sargento, teachers can guide the curriculum while companies get to showcase their work to students.Jamie Williams, a Lean process manager, reviews a product shipment. The NEW Manufacturing Alliance program has graduated more than 7,500 workers in the last decade.

The Alliance doesn’t just ignite student interest in manufacturing. It’s also where companies and educators meet to create a qualified workforce. One example is an Employability Skills training program, led by KI, which pairs local high school students with the company’s engineers and technicians to solve real-world manufacturing problems.

For instance, KI workers had difficulty installing wheels onto office chair blade bases, so the company consulted a group of students at nearby Denmark High School. With guidance throughout the school year, students ran with the project challenge, developing a timeline, concept proofs, cost estimates, prototypes, and a plan to continue improving the process.

After getting approval from KI’s engineers and plant leaders, the students built the machines they designed. They were so engaged in the project that they continued work for a week after graduating. By the end of the project, the students had applied problem-solving skills to create two machines that KI uses on its plant floor today.

Partnership projects like KI’s allow students to experience what a career in manufacturing is like —and the benefits are twofold. Manufacturers introduce their work to promising students, and in turn, students gain valuable hands-on experience.

Offering incentives

The Alliance’s commitment to furthering education doesn’t stop there. The group offers college scholarships—over $190,000 worth—to students who choose to pursue careers in manufacturing. Realizing the need for four-year engineering degrees in the area, the Alliance collaborated with local colleges to create bachelor’s degree programs for mechanical, electrical, and environmental engineering technology.

Students have responded. The number of students enrolled in machining programs at local technical colleges nearly has tripled in just three years. The number of students in local welding programs quadrupled over the same time period.

The hope—of students and manufacturers alike—is that these students will become the skilled manufacturing workers of the future.

Each fall, the Alliance holds an annual Internship Draft Day at historic Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. College students from across the state gather at the football stadium to network with companies looking to fill over 200 paid internships. Following their interviews, companies score students based on their qualifications and networking skills. The event culminates in true NFL fashion, with Packers’ president and CEO Mark Murphy announcing the top draft picks for that year’s positions.

Many students move from classes and internships to full-time industrial positions. Manufacturing companies have added more than 7,500 jobs in the region since 2011. The Alliance has secured over $400,000 in grants for employers to train their new workers, ensuring successful career beginnings.

Students find their calling

Companies’ investment in their workforce is reflected in what their young employees have to say about their jobs. Erin Halle, a process technician at Sargento, and Alex Peters, a senior automation specialist at KI, both note that they find the variety of their work rewarding. "I’ve been running lines for six years and I still see problems that I have never had before," said Halle, who operates and troubleshoots high-speed packaging equipment.

"One week I can be programming and editing a robot, and the next I can be retrofitting a new robot or building an entirely new system," said Peters. "I don’t think there’s a single day that I’ve come into work that I haven’t learned something."

The Alliance has quickly become an international leader in innovative manufacturing education, taking home the Frost & Sullivan Manufacturing Leadership Council’s award in Talent Management Leadership this year. Just four other groups were recognized, including Dow Chemical and Oracle. The Alliance has also been invited to present at the International Economic Development Council.

But the Alliance’s work is by no means complete. In fact, it’s harder than ever for manufacturers to populate their ranks.

The share of manufacturing employers who expressed difficulty finding talent has jumped from 29% in 2011 to 80% this year, according to a study commissioned by the Alliance and conducted by the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. Welding is one of the three hardest jobs to fill in Northeast Wisconsin.

Those numbers shouldn’t be surprising, given that the region’s unemployment rate is at a 16-year low. And the Baby Boomers, the backbone of the manufacturing workforce for decades, are retiring. Nationwide, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled in the next decade.

The NEW Alliance is doing its part educate young people about the appeal of those jobs—and equip them with the skills they’ll need to take them. It’s an approach that’s working in Northeast Wisconsin—and could work all over the nation.

Andy Bushmaker is an associate engineering and production manager at KI and Ann Franz is the director of the Northeast Wisconsin (NEW) Manufacturing Alliance.

By The Numbers:

80%: The number of Wisconsin manufacturers having difficulty finding skilled talent, according to a study commissioned by the Northeast Wisconsin (NEW) Manufacturing Alliance and conducted by the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. In 2011, the number was 29%.