Manufacturing course seeks to fill skills gap

By February 24, 2017 No Comments

By TONY BROWN Staff writer
Maryville Daily Forum

It’s a tough economy, right? Jobs are hard to come by, right? U.S. manufacturing is mostly outsourced overseas, and there just aren’t any good factory jobs anymore, right?

Wrong, says Josh McKim, executive director of Nodaway County Economic Development.

In Maryville at any rate, McKim claims, factory jobs are going begging, and local plants are putting off adding new shifts and opening new lines because they can’t find enough trained workers.

The key word in that sentence being “trained.”

Factory workers these days do a lot more than perform simple, repetitive tasks as various widgets move down the assembly line. More often, they control computer programs that tell very smart machines what to do and how to do it in an environment that calls for considerable technological know-how.

And while, according to McKim, Nodaway County workers are among the best in the nation when it comes to productivity, there are currently not enough of them to staff local factories whose managers say they are poised for growth.

In order to address the shortage of trained workers, NCED, the Maryville R-II School District, Northwest Technical School, and North Central Missouri College in Trenton have been working together on a program that could eventually provide specialized training to people seeking to enter the local workforce

The conversation began when plant managers here let it be known that existing vocational programs at Northwest Technical School aren’t really preparing students for careers in manufacturing.

NTS currently offers training for both traditional high school students and adults in the areas of agriculture, automotive technology, business and technology, childcare, collision repair, culinary arts, health science and technology, and welding/machine shop.

Well and good, the factory folks say, but not really what they need.

McKim said the situation prompted a “very blunt conversation” with R-II school officials, the gist of which was that local manufacturing operations require “a skill base that just isn’t there right now in our workforce.”

In an effort to plug the gap, NCED and the members of Maryville’s industrial community turned to North Central Missouri College, which, with funding from a grant written by Kim Mildward of the Maryville-based Missouri Career Center, has developed a four-course training module that emphasizes essential manufacturing skills.

The module, which consists of college-level courses in maintenance, quality control, safety, and general production, takes about 18 months to complete, and the first class of 25 students began attending once-weekly three-hour class sessions in January.

It may seem a little odd, but all of the students enrolled in the pilot program are workers who already have jobs at local plants. McKim said the course is being rolled out this way so that the participating factories can better gauge the impact of the training on efficiency, productivity, and improved worker performance.

Donell Robidoux Anderson, senior supervisor of human resources for Kawasaki Motors in Maryville, said her company has 17 workers participating in the program, and is hoping the results in terms of improved skills will merit tailoring the training for jobseekers with little or no manufacturing experience.

“That’s why we are doing it,” she said. “We have a number of different employees in different job roles going through the program, and we’ll be assessing it to see if it helps them with their current positions. If this matches with what our needs are, then we can determine if the program can help get us out of the skills gap we have in this community.”

Anderson added she is hopeful that North Central Missouri College, which has considerable experience providing industrial training in its core service area about 100 miles east of Maryville, is the right vendor to offer a more broad-based course.

Jason Helton, NCMC’s director of corporate and business relations, said his institution is eager to take up the challenge, and that Maryville is fortunate to have leaders who recognize the importance of providing the kind of core-skills training required by today’s production workers and front-line factory supervisors.

“The feedback I’ve gotten from the instructor at this point is that he’s very excited about the class,” Helton said. “Employers need a pipeline of qualified workers, and we would love to be able to provide that.”

So far, McKim said, there has been a “tremendous response” with regard to the initial course from plant managers and workers alike. He added that the program already has a waiting list of 30 employees seeking to join the next cohort.

Current students participating in the program, he said, are doing so in order to acquire skills and knowledge that will make them eligible for promotion. But he added that if the course proves successful it will eventually be opened to jobseekers at large, including both recent high school graduates and older workers in need of a credential to help them get their foot in the door.

“Eventually we’re going to try and provide this to the general public,” McKim said. “But right now we just want to find out if this is the answer that we’re looking for.”

Though only a handful of class sessions have taken place, McKim said initial feedback from students has been positive.

“The people I have talked to have seen value in it,” he said. “It’s like any other class, people will say this part is worth it and this part isn’t, but overall there has been a positive response. We’re going to continue to monitor it and see what their thoughts are going forward.”

But offering training specifically targeted at manufacturing is only part of the solution, McKim said, since such programs don’t enlarge the employee pool in a part of the state where unemployment is typically below 5 percent.

“You talk to any of the manufacturers, and they love the people they have,” McKim said. “They think they are fantastic. If you look at production levels in northwest Missouri, we outpace the federal and state averages. We are tremendously efficient.

“That being said, the problem is not so much the people who are on the floor that can do the work now, it’s figuring out how do we bring new people in.”

So, in an area that has what McKim describes as “full employment,” the question is apparently not how to create jobs, but rather how to fill them.

Factories, he said, don’t want to hire just one person for one job. They want to hire 20 or 30 people trained and ready to operate a new line or fill a new shift.

This creates a disconnect, McKim said, between what industries need and the “shotgun” approach to vocational training provided by most high schools and technical schools, in which students are prepared for a wide variety of career opportunities.

The options, he said, come down to providing specialized training that gives the existing workforce in-demand skill sets or convincing people seeking the kinds of jobs available here to move to the Maryville area.

Right now, McKim said, neither approach is working as well as it could due to differing expectations held by local residents and the people who run factories.

The community, he believes, holds to the view that if Nodaway County creates jobs people will move here. Plant managers, on the other hand, want people to move here before they create jobs.

“It’s the chicken and the egg.” McKim said.

Which leaves the NCED chief in the position of trying to play both sides of the street — developing training programs for local jobseekers while spreading the word across the four-state area in an attempt to bring new workers to town.

One approach, McKim said, has been to reach out to communities where there have been layoffs and plant closures and sending the message “We’ve got jobs.” NCED is also stepping up its level of participation in career day events and job fairs.

“Economic development professionals in the 21st century are going to be focused on workforce development rather than recruitment of new enterprises,” McKim said. “When I first heard that, I didn’t really believe it, but now I think that’s probably true.”

Another variable in play, he said, is a changing of the guard as baby boomers move toward retirement, and millions of millennials seek to take their place in the workforce.

For many young people, production work, with its demanding shifts and rigid schedules, is simply not attractive.

“Millennials are more focused on work-life balance — things like flexible hours and working at home,” McKim said. “They’re not always about the job opportunities but rather the quality of life. Not all businesses can do that, especially manufacturing businesses.”

Still, for qualified workers, factory jobs offer good pay and a chance for advancement, and that’s the message McKim is trying to get out both to current residents and people who might consider Nodaway County as a promising place to plant their lives and raise a family.

“There is definitely a demand for workers,” he said. “For people seeking production work, there are opportunities.”