How industry and higher ed are working together to prepare workers for the manufacturing careers of the future
At Ultra Machining Co. (UMC) in Monticello, business is humming like the whir emitted by the multimillion-dollar CNC machines on the factory floor.
“We’ve been growing our revenue by 15% a year,” says Eric Gibson, UMC’s president, who is justifiably proud of the privately held contract manufacturer’s annual revenue, which he puts “in the range of $30 and $50 million.”
While that sounds like sweet news for UMC, there is a bitter kernel embedded at its center.
“We could be growing at twice that pace if we could hire the people we need,” Gibson says, adding that although the salary of UMC’s 72 machinists averages $60,000, jobs go begging.
That’s a problem that troubles manufacturers across the state. According to the 2016 State of Manufacturing survey commissioned by Enterprise Minnesota, 66% of manufacturers find it difficult to attract qualified candidates. In addition, 63% of metro-area firms report concern about a worker shortage; it rises to 71% in greater Minnesota.
“If we don’t have the right workforce, it will hold back the Minnesota economy,” warns Luann Bartley, director of workforce development for the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association.
According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), manufacturing accounts for nearly 897,000 positions or 32% of all jobs in Minnesota, making it the largest private-sector contributor to Minnesota’s GDP at $44.1 billion.
But for the industry to thrive and develop, it must be fully staffed.
It’s not your father’s factory
“It’s been years since manufacturing was a job for unskilled labor,” Bartley explains. “People don’t realize these are the great, highly skilled careers of the future. With a year or two of technical training, people can get a job with excellent pay, security and the ability to advance. But we still have a stigma that we’re fighting.”
Bartley believes an educational system that stresses traditional four year colleges and universities at the expense of skills-based programs at technical schools shoulders part of the blame.
Some of the state’s brightest brains are puzzling over the labor shortage to come up with a range of solutions.
“We have to do a better job explaining to young people what advanced manufacturing is all about,” says Steven Rosenstone, chancellor of the Minnesota State University system (formerly known as MnSCU). “It’s not wrenches and grease and washing your hands with Lava soap. We have to break that stereotype and tell students, if you like video games, Star Wars, computers — boy, do we have the career for you!”
In 2011, Minnesota State, with its network of seven universities and 20 technical colleges, retooled and updated its technical curriculum to better align with skills in demand in Minnesota’s manufacturing sector.
The teen AKA the traditional student
With the current and looming shortage of skilled labor, technical colleges that prepare workers for manufacturing jobs have widened their net in their search for students.
Recruiters at Dunwoody College of Technology offer prospects a powerful incentive — the college boasts a 100% placement rate for students taking coursework to prepare them for careers in manufacturing through the school’s two- or four-year degrees.
Who’s biting? Here’s a trio of Dunwoody students who will soon be writing their resumes and listening to industry recruiters.
Although he’s just 18, Donald Posterick sounds a note of maturity when asked about his higher ed decision.
“I looked at a few different schools and compared the return on the investment,” says the recent high school graduate about his decision to attend Dunwoody.
Currently in his first semester as an Electronics Engineering Technology major, Posterick hails from Marble, Minn., an Iron Range town of 700. He arrives at the Minneapolis campus with hands-on tech experience. He competed on the FIRST Robotics team at Grand Rapids High School and also played a key role on the school’s team that excelled in the Shell Eco-marathon. The annual contest challenges students to build energy-efficient cars; Posterick’s team took fourth place in the international competition in Detroit, bested by three university teams.
“I spent hundreds of hours in the electronics shop after school designing the speed controller, building the parts and writing the code. I knew the custodians by name,” he says. “I learned a lot on my own through trial and error. That’s how I love to work.”
Posterick, the son of a retired postal clerk and a truck driver, is the first in his family to attend college. He is enrolled in a two-year program but already is thinking about continuing his education at Dunwoody to get a four-year degree in Industrial Engineering.
“I want to work in the automotive field, designing electrical automobiles,” he says. “There are a lot of exciting careers to choose from.”
The Marine AKA the veteran
Patrick Schulz signed up for Dunwoody’s Machine Tool Technology program after returning from a five-year stint in the Marine Corps, where he worked as a crew chief on the MV-22 Osprey aircraft.
He chose the two-year college program after carefully researching what would be the best use of his veteran’s educational benefits, selecting a program that will prepare him to work in a high-tech environment.
“I don’t want to be a button pusher. I want to do something different on a day-to-day basis,” says Schulz, 28, of Wyoming, Minn. “I like the challenge of doing set-up on the CNC machines; you’re more than an operator. I want to use my training.”
Heading into his second year, Schulz likes the feeling of being in demand.
“Companies are trying to sell themselves to us. Just last week, I was talking to the CEO of a mold-making company who was here on campus to meet with students. He gave me his business card and said, ‘Call me,’” Schulz says with a grin. “That’s why I say I’m confident.”
The magician AKA the returning student
As a professional magician, Chris Ritt was skilled in illusions but was not prepared for the dirty trick the economy played on him — the recession made his job disappear.
“When the whole world went broke, luxury services took a hit. The corporate gigs dried up,” says Ritt, now 52. “There was a divorce, bankruptcy. I was struggling.”
As an entertainer, Ritt had worked with Halloween productions including Valley Scare, the annual haunted attraction at Valleyfair.
“That had gotten me interested in animatronics and hobby electronics; all magicians love gadgets,” he explains.
That background ultimately led him to pursue a two-year degree in Automated Systems and Robotics. Now midway through the program, he envisions a career working in the biomedical industry or designing effects for a theme park.
Graduates with his major can expect to immediately command $50-60,000 a year.
“I’m young at heart, but I can’t kid myself. I don’t have years to experiment; I want to go to school for four semesters and get a job,” he says.
Ritt is on the senior end of the age spectrum of Dunwoody’s student body, but not the oldest lifelong learner there by any means.
“When I was a kid, I played with toy robots,” he says. “When I told my mom what I was going back to school to study, she said, ‘It’s about time.’”
Affordable higher ed. with a practical purpose
The renewed focus on these programs comes at the same time that college debt is soaring. Rosenstone stresses that technical programs can give graduates an impressive bang for their higher ed buck.
“In the year 2020, 75% of all jobs will require post-secondary education, but only half will require a Baccalaureate degree. At our technical colleges, the average tuition is $4,800 a year, and it’s mostly two-year degrees, so students graduate with a fraction of the debt. We’ve got to tell that part of the story a whole lot better.”
At Dunwoody College of Technology, even the names of majors have been switched to make them sound more relevant — and give them more pizzaz.
“We used to have a program called Automated Manufacturing Systems and Packaging. Now we call it Automated Systems and Robotics; we also have an Industrial Controls and Robotics degree,” says EJ Daigle, Dunwoody’s Dean of Robotics and Manufacturing Technology.
Daigle thinks many students exit high school seeking the traditional college rite of passage with its dorm life, meal plans and football games; those are lifestyle amenities that technical schools don’t provide, even though a two-year degree is a solid education option.
“But that experience isn’t right for everyone. At a recent orientation of 60 new students, one-third had attended college and ten already held a four-year degree,” he says. “They had a college education, but they came to Dunwoody to get a job.”
And those jobs are plentiful. The most in-demand graduates are those who complete Dunwoody’s two-year machine tool program. The bright outlook for those students is the program’s best selling point.
“We had 30 graduates last year and 300 requests from industry for them,” Daigle says, noting many requests were specifically for the school’s machine tool program.
Ultra Machining’s Eric Gibson has his own opinion about why more students don’t consider technical degrees as they map their post high school plans.
“Our biggest challenge is the parents,” he says flatly. “Many have an outdated idea of manufacturing, shops that are dark, dangerous and dirty, and that’s not what they want for their kids. They don’t know our facility is air-conditioned and air-filtered; 70% of our business is medical devices so you could truly eat off our floor.”
Gibson, who also chairs the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Manufacturing Coalition, suspects parents dismiss manufacturing careers without understanding the sophistication of the work.
“Our machines cost between $750,000 and a million dollars. When we turn someone loose on them, they have to write programs, use software,” he says. “They’re as much computer technicians as craftsmen.”
Ultra Machining is located a literal stone’s throw from Monticello High School, and that short walk gives the company a strategic advantage.
“We can get in front of the students early; we have high school apprentices as well as apprentices who are in technical college. We attract quality kids and we hope many of them will come back and work with us,” says Gibson.
Now in his second year at St. Cloud Technical College, Adam Bush began working at UMC in his senior year at Monticello High. Now 19, he’s continued as an apprentice as he moves toward his associate’s degree in machine tool technology.
“It requires a lot of dexterity, quick thinking and patience. You solve problems all day, every day,” Bush says.
Gibson reports that UMC, like many of its competitors, often makes job offers to its apprentices in their final year of training, something Bush is anticipating.
“I work hard, I’m never late, I never leave early. I get the job done,” Bush says. “I think my career opportunities are immense.”