Despite the downturn in the economy, finding skilled factory workers is a tremendous challenge. A recent report by Deloitte Consulting LLC for the Manufacturing Institute, said that while “the manufacturing industry continues to be widely recognized as an indicator of the health of the U.S. economy,” it does not have the requisite skills to compete effectively globally.
Based on a survey of manufacturers, the study found that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled despite the high unemployment rate in the U.S. Moreover, manufacturers report that their biggest challenge is filling those highly skilled production jobs which are crucial to their innovation and growth.
Manufacturers face a number of problems finding qualified help including having a large image problem, particularly with younger candidates. Old stereotypes of backbreaking labor and grimy working conditions still dominate the minds of the young. Secondly, the world of viral information exchange has given celebrity status to high technology and cutting edge entrepreneurship, thus making traditionally ‘old economy' industries, such as manufacturing, seem comparatively unsexy. Lastly, the manufacturing companies themselves seem to be replying upon antiquated recruiting and training strategies, which are no longer effective in this ever-competitive and ever-changing economic landscape.
Joe Peters, CEO of Universal Plastics, a 48-year-old custom thermoformer based in Holyoke, Mass., has been attempting to resolve each of the problems mentioned above by partnering with local career centers, schools and government agencies to engage young people in advanced manufacturing while helping reduce the high unemployment in Western Massachusetts.
In reality, manufacturing jobs today are much more high tech and appealing to a younger demographic. Workers can cut steel with lasers, water jets and plasma cutters and can program robots to paint, package and palletize products.
Peters, along with Universal employee Manny Cruz, were recently recognized by the state of Massachusetts as a success story for manufacturing training and workforce development.
“Western Mass, like many areas of the country, has a huge disconnect between the many jobs that are open and finding employees to fill them,” Peters said. “Advanced manufacturing represents a huge and growing segment of the job market here. As an advanced manufacturer, the majority of the equipment at Universal Plastics is computer controlled and takes skilled employees to operate.”
David Cruise, REB president and CEO said, “The availability of a well-trained workforce is the differentiator that will give the precision manufacturing industry the competitive advantage it needs to grow and create wealth opportunities for its employees and investors. Universal Plastics recognizes this and has committed its support for continuous improvement.”
In addition to working alongside local career placement centers and the employment board, Peters has also opened the doors to Universal Plastics and conducts ongoing tours for grammar schools, high schools and vocational schools with the goal of exposing youth to advanced manufacturing.
Another recent initiative led by Peters in conjunction with the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, Boys and Girls Club of Holyoke and Holyoke High School brings in students to the Universal Plastics factory to film a video about local advanced manufacturing. Students will learn about custom thermoforming, see how the machinery works and interview employees and then shoot the video themselves. The goal of this project is, once again, to get local youth excited about local manufacturing so that they will consider coming to work at places like Universal Plastics.
“If we can get more kids to learn about manufacturing and just how much opportunity there is for skilled, technically advanced operators so that they are making an informed career decision that is a huge win for us,” said Jay Kumar, president of Universal. “And of course, we hope that some of those decisions lead to careers at Universal Plastics, like in the case of Manny Cruz.”
There's an important story at Universal Plastics, one worth being told and heard by every manufacturer across the United States, about the importance of educating, believing in, training and developing our workforce. Manny Cruz is not just an example of how a young man can improve his future, but also of how collaboration between manufacturers, a government training agency, and today's youth can bridge the chasm between skills and jobs to bolster the future of American manufacturing, an outcome which benefits us all.
“Manufacturing is enjoying a renaissance, as computer technology and robotics are becoming the way of life,” Peters said. “Our hope at Universal Plastics is that we can continue to attract young people to pursue amazing careers that are challenging, rewarding and essential in today's evolving economy.”
Pia Kumar is head of corporate development for Universal Plastics.