There are benefits to connecting with a local welding program.
According to The Fabricator:
Metal fabricators pride themselves on being able to take on complex work, but they are stumped—as are many other businesses in the U.S. economy—when it comes to attracting suitable job candidates for their openings. What do they have to do to find the right skilled workers willing to work for the wages and benefits being offered? It’s even a more daunting challenge considering that many in the labor pool have no real knowledge of manufacturing.
Some metal fabricators, however, think ahead. They have been able to see the problem and take steps to make it more manageable. That’s how they survive recessions and pandemics.
The following four metal fabricators have all established relationships with local vocational schools and community colleges in an effort to connect with potential employees and also support the creation of a talent pipeline in their areas. It’s worked out well for them and should provide other shops and manufacturers with the motivation to stop sitting on the sidelines and get involved.
Get Out and About
Kimberly Wimer, human resource manager for Laser Precision, Libertyville, Ill., started her job in early 2017 with little to no knowledge about metal fabricating, having come from the mortgage securities industry. She had to throw herself not only into the business, but also the local manufacturing talent pool. One of the first stops was the Lake County Tech Campus in Grayslake, Ill., a career and technical education training facility where 22 high schools can send their students to learn a skill during the latter part of their secondary school careers. She got to meet the manufacturing technology and welding instructors and learn what the programs offered and how her new employer could assist. From there, she was introduced to the College of Lake County (CLC), the local community college; Lake County Partners, the county’s economic development arm; and Lake County Workforce Development.
Since those introductions, she’s been active in making presentations at the Lake County Tech Campus and advising its instructors and those at CLC about tailoring their classes for local manufacturing companies’ real-world labor needs. She’s also served for the past two years on the county’s workforce development board, assuming the co-chair position in 2021. She keeps pretty busy trying to sell the idea of a manufacturing career to young people.
“What we’ve learned, unfortunately, is that a lot of young adults might not know what they want to do. They’re overwhelmed by the thought of a four-year education, not to mention the large amount of college debt that goes hand-in-hand with that,” Wimer said.
With the Lake County Tech Campus, Laser Precision established internships that allow students to work a part-time schedule in the afternoons or early evenings. They learn blueprint reading and actually do some spot welding and light grinding—and they get paid. If things go well, by the end of the intern’s senior year, he or she could get a job offer.
The company has expanded this part-time work offering to a local high school as well. These aren’t officially “interns,” but students that want to earn some money and find out what manufacturing is about. (According to insurance requirements, the Lake County Tech Campus interns and the high school workers at Laser Precision have to be 18 years old.)
Wimer said that she likes to make presentations to the different classes and invite the students to see what modern manufacturing looks like. For instance, Laser Precision, which employs just over 140 people, has a tabletop collaborative robot that is programmed with a tablet computer, and the automation is always attractive to younger people. The pandemic has changed things a bit, as the company has had to rely more on video-based tours of the shop, but the ability to see what an advanced manufacturer looks like goes a long way in attracting potential employees.
“Parents are still very skeptical. They think that the kids will be running a bunch of machines and then the machines will just take over the job,” Wimer said. “That’s where I have to explain that the machines are only as smart as the people programming them.”
And that’s where a conversation about career opportunities starts, Wimer said. An entry-level position is just the beginning. From there, a worker might become a press brake operator, an estimator, or even a supervisor. All of the pathways lead to positions that provide for sustainable living.
All of these efforts have resulted in the recruitment and retention of about 20 employees, Wimer said. That’s a win for a company where no one is coming to the front door and looking for work.
“We knew that something like this was going to take time. This isn’t going to be something that materializes overnight,” she said. “What we didn’t want to do is in three years look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we start this sooner?’”
In the meantime, she continues the outreach efforts. Before the pandemic, Laser Precision had the chance to host almost 60 guidance counselors and school administrators at one of its regular meetings. Everything that students had been able to observe was available to the folks that help to guide students’ career choices.
“The counselors were definitely surprised. They had never been invited to a setting like this before, and they had never been able to ask questions,” Wimer said. “I was even able to bring in a couple of students that we had recruited and that were working for us so they could tell their story.”
Wimer ultimately would like to see more manufacturers in the county rally around workforce development. As an example, she points to the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance, which has an annual draft day for potential interns at Lambeau Field each fall. College students are invited to meet with more than 50 companies and set 15-minute interviews with them to compete for more than 200 paid internships. Based on points awarded during the interviews, the most impressive students are eligible for scholarships. It’s an exciting time for all of those involved, and Wimer said such an event could energize interest in Illinois manufacturing jobs as well.
Any advice for other metal fabricators looking to connect with local educational institutions? “I would contact your closest high school and see if they have a job board. I would try and talk to somebody that oversees or organizes the counselors at the school,” Wimer said. “I’m a big proponent of offering to come in and talk to the students about advanced manufacturing.”
Small Company, Big Results
G&S Manufacturing, Courtland, Minn., is no stranger to reaching out to local educational institutions. It’s been doing so for more than 10 years.
The effort was originally spearheaded by Pat Stadick, company owner, and Dale Filzen, general manager. Today Jessica Kloeckl leads the outreach.
The family-owned company specializes in fabricating structural steel and heavy-duty fabrication projects but also takes on sheet metal work. It employs 28, so that means everyone helps out where they can. Kloeckl, for example, handles accounting chores and shipping activities for the company.
The company’s close-knit environment is something that might appeal to a certain type of worker who is looking for something more than a job, according to Kloeckl.
“We are a small business, but we still do the large projects that the big companies do. It’s kind of the best of both worlds here,” she said. “We know all of our employees. It’s like a work family.”
G&S Manufacturing has been involved with the nearby South Central College welding program for about six years, acting as an adviser for curriculum development, hosting tours, providing materials, and even having welding supervisors stop by and offer up tips and tricks to the students. The company also made a large donation to help pave the way for the construction of a new welding lab at the college’s North Mankato, Minn., campus.
The metal fabricator also has worked with the New Ulm Area Catholic School, which recently launched a welding program, and New Ulm High School, which runs an in-house business called Eagle Enterprises that allows the vocational students to work on actual projects paid for by external customers. In both instances, G&S Manufacturing shares its manufacturing expertise and points of view on manufacturing careers with the students.
“We would love to be able to spend more time with the students, but sometimes it’s hard to do that with the students’ routine and curriculum and our own work schedule,” Kloeckl said.
The outreach has paid off in terms of finding employees. Kloeckl said that about half of the shop floor staff spent some time at South Central College. But that’s not the only reason the company engages with the college and the local high schools. It’s good for the community, which actually has a large share of manufacturing companies that are always looking for new employees. It’s one of the reasons that South Central College upgraded its welding facilities and has full classes.
“Just collaborating with the other welding shops and seeing them come together to bring more awareness to the welding and fabricating field is huge,” she said.
Any advice for other metal fabricators looking to connect with local educational institutions? “Even if you start out small, you can build from there. Just having that name recognition and letting the students know who they can reach out to are important,” Kloeckl said.
Act at the Highest Levels
DeGeest, Tea, S.D., is a fabricator of large steel weldments for OEMs in industries, such as construction and agriculture. Welding is a key part of the company’s ability to turn its customers’ designs into reality.
You might have read about the welding competition that DeGeest holds for Harrisburg High School in Harrisburg, S.D., and Tea Area High School in Tea, S.D.. The competition is just one way that the metal fabricating company supports the two welding programs. It’s obviously good for the company to get its name in front of potential employees, but Derek DeGeest, president, said that it’s good to support the creation of a deeper talent pool for manufacturers in the area as well.
“We have to secure our talent pool and develop a strategy to be more active in bringing in talent instead of reacting to current circumstances,” DeGeest said.
It’s gotten to the point in southeast South Dakota that manufacturers are poaching employees from each other on a regular basis. Welding students are being lured away from their vocational school training with the knowledge that they can start making money even without the degree.
“As a group, we have to work to align government programs with what high schools, technical schools, and colleges are doing because we have to develop a pipeline. It’s not scalable to keep stealing from each other. It hurts the industry overall,” DeGeest said.
DeGeest recognizes that South Dakota is trying to address the dearth of young people entering the trades, and now he’s a part of the effort. The governor’s office recently appointed him to the Build Dakota Scholarship board, which is in charge of overseeing the program that provides educational funding to students entering fields such as vehicle maintenance, construction, and welding. With this type of program, government and industry can do more than just tell students about rewarding careers; they can help pay for training to get students into the workforce debt-free.
That excites DeGeest because the need is great for a new generation of manufacturing workers. For instance, the fabricator is looking to build up its automation expertise to overcome labor and manufacturing capacity issues, and it needs people that can program robots and have an understanding of metal fabricating.
Any advice for other metal fabricators looking to connect with local educational institutions? “I’d say look internally and ask yourself if you are ready for people to see your operation,” DeGeest said. “Getting them in the door is just one step. If you’re not aware of what they are looking for and you have to offer, you’re wasting time. You need to be able to talk about where you’re going and have a vision about how you are going to continue to improve.
“The students and young people looking at a job are thinking about these things when they’re interviewing you,” he continued. “Things have really changed. It’s an employee’s world now.”
Think About the Long Term
When Jeff Stapel, human resources and safety manager, Shickel Corp., started with the company 25 years ago, he brought along an established relationship with Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, Va. It marked the beginning of a close relationship between the metal fabricator and installer and the educational institution. Stapel said that almost all the people hired in the past few years in the fabrication department and field services have some sort of connection to the college.
School faculty actually have worked for Shickel in the summer. Stapel said that they have employed some of the instructors on the shop floor and some of the engineering faculty in the design area.
“That way they get an idea as to what real life looks like,” Stapel said.
Shickel isn’t just waiting for new employees to graduate from the community college. It actually uses the school to advance the skills of its own employees. Back in 2014, with the company celebrating its 75th anniversary, Shickel made a decision to invest in its employees. It worked with faculty of Blue Ridge Community College to offer training in basic math, ratios, geometry, trigonometry, print reading, and welding symbols. The goal was to raise the skill and knowledge of workers so that they could work more independently and confidently. Follow-up revealed that a vast majority of those that participated heightened their knowledge, as evidenced by tests taken before and after the training.
The Shickel-Blue Ridge relationship is symbiotic. Shickel engages with the instructors and students, establishing a relationship with potential job candidates, and Blue Ridge instructors can position the manufacturing-related courses as conduits to good-paying jobs.
“We’re mutually satisfying the needs of each other,” Stapel said.
Any advice for other metal fabricators looking to connect with local educational institutions? “You can start by just reaching out by calling the community college or the tech schools in the area. I would be very surprised if they weren’t eager to establish a relationship,” Stapel said.
“But if you do this, you have to take a long-term perspective. They aren’t looking for somebody that will do this for six months and move on,” he added. “This is a long-term strategy.”