Manufacturing Worker ShortageMoney Can’t Buy Me Love – so sang The Beatles 50 years ago and apparently, it’s a refrain many employers are singing today as well.  The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports the average manufacturing worker in Iowa earns $77,060 annually, including pay and benefits. Despite these attractive numbers, manufacturers throughout the Upper Midwest are having difficulty attracting the workforce they need. Low population growth, a lack of trained workers, a record number retiring baby boomers, and a negative perception of manufacturing as a career – these are all factors making it difficult to fill manufacturing positions.

Not long ago, workers could land a factory job with a high school diploma or GED. Today, a worker needs technological skills they don’t offer in high school. From CNC machinist to robotics, workers need to obtain new skills to perform technology-based functions that often require a two-year diploma or certification.

Filling the Skills Gap

Where can workers obtain the skills they need to qualify for these positions? State and federal agencies have recognized the need and are pitching in to help build training programs. Last year, a group of lowa community colleges known as the Iowa Advanced Manufacturing Consortium (I-AM Consortium) met in Iowa City to build training programs for advanced manufacturing careers using a $13 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL also recently awarded five Minnesota two-year colleges $20 million to create manufacturing training programs.

The I-AM Consortium recently released a report with their outcomes for the first year. So far, the organization has seen the following results:

  • 27 of the 32 grant-impacted programs have been launched throughout the state
  • 819 unique participants benefited from the grant program while more than 650 students are still working toward a credential
  • Nearly $1,000,000 of program-related equipment has been purchased and embedded into grant-impacted programs
  • 123 individuals completed a grant-impacted program, earning a degree/diploma (19%) or certificate (81%)

Not Your Father’s Factory

Alleviating the perception of manufacturing work as back breaking, dirty, and under paid is also key to attracting more workers. For example, WCFCourier.com recently reported that John Deere spent $150 million on modernizing a foundry in Waterloo, IA. Josh Wittenburg, manager of the foundry explained, “A big part of everything we invest in is about our employees and providing a better environment to work in, bucking the stereotypical perception of a foundry environment. We are the safest foundry in the industry here and we have a great place for our employees to work.”

“We remove them from the hazards and work them smarter, not harder, through automation and improved technology. And that helps us attract employees to the foundry and retain them here. There are employees who have been here a long time, and they love it here and have no desire to leave. We continue to invest in making it a safe place, a better place to work.”

Many two-year colleges can tailor training programs to specific industry requirements. Manufacturers can take advantage of this option with different kinds of state and federal programs. For example, in Minnesota, the state will award grants to accredited colleges who partner with businesses to develop and deliver training specific to the business’ needs.

Economics of Higher Education

For workers who are not interested in a traditional bachelor’s degree, a shorter training program makes good economic sense. Tuition costs for a two year degree or certification are a fraction of the cost of a bachelor’s degree from a public or private university and class schedules are often more flexible for working adults looking to make a change. For displaced workers and young people concerned about high student loan debt, advanced manufacturing careers may be an option to consider.

Manufacturers, educators and local leaders are all banking on investments to modernize factories, implement the technology and offer attractive compensation packages to improve the image of manufacturing careers and fill their current open positions.

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