It seems like the job skills gap makes the news on a daily basis. For manufacturing, it's a crisis point as older factory workers retire. President Donald Trump's council of Economic Advisers recently issued a paper saying the gap between job openings and workers to fill them could limit economic growth.
In other words, all the reshoring of work back to the United States won't mean much unless we can develop skilled young workers, as well retrain older ones.
But how do we do that in the United States? We're not going to copy Germany with a long history of formal apprenticeships covering many types of positions. No, U.S. manufacturers are taking a more local approach and trying to reach unconventional job candidates.
The story in this week's issue on TK Mold & Engineering Inc., a small injection mold maker in Romeo, Mich., is a good example of a company using both approaches: a formal apprenticeship approved by the U.S. Department of Labor and a creative, welcoming approach to prospective young machinists.
TK Mold owners Tom and Krista Barr have achieved something extraordinary: 14 of their company's 20 mold makers are ages 19 to 25!
That sets TK Mold apart for the pack of mold builders who worry about not finding new tradespeople and often blame the school system for failing to provide them with educated, competent young prospects.
Our story spells out how Tom Barr came to realize there were good, budding machinists in a lot of places, especially at Macomb Community College, the very same school where he got his apprenticeship back in 1991. He worked with the college to develop a TK-specific apprenticeship program.
His wife, Krista Barr, who has a master's degree in social work, joined TK Mold as director of employee development. She knows how to talk to the young machinists, which both Tom and Krista call "the kids." Krista Barr checks regularly to see if they have what they need to succeed. Tom and Krista, as well as some veteran machinists, even joined the young ones in a Tough Mudder challenge.
The company is also active at Romeo High School's Career and Technical Education program. TK Mold presented a check for $9,000 to the high school from the American Mold Builders Association. AMBA is focusing attention on the next-generation workforce.
An AMBA plant tour showed Tom Barr the possibilities when he visited a successful high school manufacturing program in Wisconsin. Barr serves on the AMBA board of directors. He says working on a trade association has helped him and his company.
"Being a part of AMBA or any organization like that, it allows you to collaborate with your peers. Network. I've learned a lot how other companies handle it and other states," he said.
Once TK Mold employees start work, Barr does performance reviews after 90 days, 180 days and at the one-year anniversary. After a year of employment, he gives each apprentice a set of tools. Many come from retired mold makers.
"These kids, they're not going to go out and buy a crapload of tools," Barr said. "They're just trying to pay off their debt. And now they really feel part of the company, part of the team."
Tom and Krista Barr say their young workers have shattered any stereotypes they used to have about millennials.
Inevitably, a company that invests in training faces the question of a bigger competitor poaching them away for more money. Tom and Krista Barr understand that, but they think their approach will encourage the young machinists to stay. TK Mold may not be as efficient, right now, as a shop full of veterans. But those veterans will retire, and five years now, TK will be in a far better position for the future.
Too many manufacturing companies say they don't want to invest in training and education because they fear their people will leave. But if every toolmaker followed the lead of TK Mold & Engineering, poaching wouldn't be an issue. And the industry would be so much better.
Bregar is a Plastics News senior reporter. Follow him on Twitter @Machinerybeat25.