Luring today’s high school students into manufacturing

I keep hearing this number in various media channels: 600,000. That's the number of manufacturing jobs that are available that no one has been able to fill. I get e-mails from various industry search firms letting me know that they have dozens of resumes from people looking for jobs and a variety of job listings with plastics processors - both custom and captive - and no one responds.

Craig Porter, president and owner of PlastiCert, a custom molding company in Lewiston, MN. Porter has a 33-year-long career in plastic injection molding design and manufacturing services, and as he told me recently: "It's perplexing. And it's going to get worse."

Porter is trying to do something about developing talent in his area. Recently, he hosted the 9th Grade Career Readiness Class from Lewiston-Altura High School. "These freshman students are learning about different careers and what is necessary to prepare for them," said Porter.

Touring PlastiCert - a molder for industrial control products, telecommunications, avionics, HVAC parts, even fishing lures - allowed the students to see the workings of a manufacturing company, something that few of them knew anything about, given that Lewiston is a mostly rural area with an agricultural economy. Porter stressed that while there are the obvious positions directly making plastic and composite parts and assemblies, there are many indirect jobs that support the manufacturing function such as purchasing, production planning, shipping and receiving, inventory control, accounting, sales and marketing and IT opportunities.

In an article in The Pew Charitable Trusts publication, Pamela Prah wrote "Selling Manufacturing to a New Generation" (May 2014 issue). She addresses the difficulty that manufacturers have in polishing their image from the perception of "a dirty dungeon" to one of the high-tech, computerized workplace that manufacturing plants are today.

Prah noted that "manufacturing has moved from manual mills and lathes to computerized numerical control equipment and 3D printers. Hand-held welders are being replaced with robotic welders. Industrial maintenance mechanics no longer need to know how to use a wrench, but have to be able to operate a 'programmable logic control,' or a digital computer, to fix the machines."

The pay of the average manufacturing worker in the United States was $77,505 in 2012, including benefits, said Prah. Yet, "U.S. employers reported last year that skilled trades positions were the most difficult to fill." In Wisconsin alone, where Prah was visiting a manufacturing plant and writing her article, she said that manufacturers will have to fill 700,000 vacancies over the next eight years because of retirements.

"The pool of possible employees is getting smaller," Porter stated. "The young people today are of a different mindset. They want to learn but don't want to put out too much to learn it."  

To bend a bit to the "new" worker, PlastiCert operates on a 'flextime' schedule. "Life has gotten pretty demanding so we find that having a flexible workplace helps. We won an award for having a flexible work place from a group called 'When Work Works.' We can get what we need from the employees, but the employees can get what they need as well."

PlastiCert also uses robots on certain jobs. "Robots can free you up and keep working without an operator, and that does help with flexibility," Porter said. "Robots have their place depending on the type of customers you have and can be an advantage. We target low-to-mid volume insert molded parts so on some jobs robots are not as beneficial."

Porter tries to make his company as visible as possible, and puts out a Constant Contact newsletter every week to promote his company both to potential customers and to potential employees. "We're getting visibility on Twitter as well," he said. "The more things you put out there, the higher up you are on the visibility scale. It's all about creating an air of capability."

As for the high school student tour, Porter believes it was helpful. "None of them knew what we did coming into the tour," he commented. "Their teacher Kevin Wood who requested the tour, pointed out to them the diversity that PlastiCert adds to Lewiston. Diversity helps make it possible for people who want to stay in Lewiston to have more options, which is one of the numerous reasons why we are located here."

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