As 2013 kicks off, so has an initiative by El Paso and Teller county teachers, employers and workforce specialists to ensure that when manufacturers put out a “Now Hiring” call, there will be skilled workers ready to answer.
Those working in the manufacturing sector are working to build a pipeline from seventh grade to the inside of manufacturing plants across the region.
There are plans for a Colorado Springs technical middle and high school to open in 2014; Pikes Peak Community College has pumped up its technical programs; manufacturers are donating high-dollar equipment to the college to help train their future workforce; and federal dollars — for the first time — are available to El Paso and Teller County manufacturers for employee training.
Staffing was the No. 1 topic discussed at the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance manufacturing forum this week at Pikes Peak Community College.
For too long now, local manufacturers have told the story of how they cannot find employees skilled in the trades — such as welding, machining and drafting.
Dave Jeffrey, founder and president of JPM Prototype and Manufacturing, recalls inviting Pueblo Community College students to tour his manufacturing plant. He had two apprenticeship slots open and would train them on such manufacturing mainstays as lathes and computer numerical control machines. He told interested students to send him a letter of interest and a résumé.
“We thought it was a silver-platter opportunity,” he said. “Two and a half years later, I have yet to receive one letter or résumé.”
The manufacturing staffing issue is serious, said Apryl Rupp, a branch manager for Kelly Services, a staffing agency. There are 2.7 million Baby Boomers working in manufacturing jobs across the county. And while there are 40 million Millennials — those born between 1980 and 2000 — in the workforce, only a fraction of them are encouraged to look into manufacturing careers, she said.
“Today, we know we have a talent shortage,” she said. “Over the next three to five years, that is projected to get worse.”
There are many reasons why local manufacturers are having trouble filling jobs. Colorado Springs was a hotbed for manufacturing growth in the 1990s. But, from 2000 to 2012, the city lost 55 percent of manufacturing positions — about 19,000 jobs.
At the same time, local high schools closed down their traditional shop classes and high school students lost interest in learning to build things, said Rob Daugherty, dean of students at James Irwin Charter Schools and former owner of Environmental Powder Coating.
“They aren’t building forts anymore or getting into the tool box for measuring tapes,” he said.
And now Baby Boomers are getting ready to retire and manufacturers are trying to figure out ways to entice the Millennials into their industry.
“If you ask a 17-year-old to tell you about manufacturing, they say ‘it’s dirty,’” Rupp said.
But manufacturing plants today are high tech and require clean rooms for precision parts making. Colorado Springs manufacturing represents about 4.4 percent of all jobs in the area — and 40 percent of them are considered high-tech. Still, it’s going to take a lot of job fairs and “manufacturing days” to change the perception, Rupp said.
“Start now,” is her advice to educators and manufacturers.
Manufacturers need to be on Twitter, websites and all social media to appeal to the video-game-playing generation, said Leah Bradley, Kelly Services territory vice president of Colorado. They need to set up mentor and apprentice programs and develop ways for Millennials to mark their achievements within the company.
“Remember video games — they want to get to the next level,” Bradley said.
In Colorado Springs, employees in manufacturing make between $69,535 and $91,483 if they have a high-tech manufacturing job compared to the $46,302 average wage of Colorado Springs, according to a 2012 Brookings Institute report on manufacturing jobs in the U.S.
In El Paso County’s manufacturing heyday of the late 1990s, manufacturing represented 16 percent of the local economy, and its higher paying jobs significantly increased per capita income in El Paso County. Economist Dr. Fred Crowley, of the Southern Colorado Economic Forum, has said the loss of those jobs contributes to the region making a slower economic recovery now than the rest of the U.S. Since that loss, per capita income in the county has declined more than 7 percent.
It’s the reason rebuilding the manufacturing sector is high on the Business Alliance priority list.
“It all comes down to a simple stat,” said Joe Raso, Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance CEO. “One of the highest paying sectors is manufacturing.”
One thing that could help manufacturers fill their skills gap is to provide advanced training for their existing employees, said Linda Johnson, Pikes Peak Workforce Center business specialist. The workforce center has a $750,000 Advanced Technical Skill Training grant available to El Paso and Teller County manufacturers, she said. The federal money covers the cost of training employees and the employer can choose any training program they want.
Johnson sent out notice of the grant program to 258 companies and still has funds available, she said. So far, four local manufacturing companies have taken advantage of the program.
“It’s the first time we’ve had this opportunity to train existing employees,” she said.
The grant also pays for anyone who is unemployed to take technical training programs that would help them land a job in the manufacturing industry.
Daugherty says educators can help change the perception about manufacturing by bringing back the trades in middle and high school. He has met regularly with local manufacturers about their concerns over lack of trade programs in schools.
“We’ve heard a lot about the skill gap,” Daugherty said. “We are putting together a school to teach them skills to leave in 12th grade and go to PPCC or go to work at JPM (for example.)”
James Irwin Charter Schools, which is located in Colorado Springs School District 2, expects to open its trade academy in fall of 2014. Students will learn all the required state classes but also graduate with the first level of certification in their chosen skilled trade.
Students will enter the academy in seventh grade and take woodshop, metal shop and drafting courses. In the high school grades the students will choose a manufacturing specialty.
“They’ll learn what it takes to put a project together,” Daugherty said.
Daugherty and other school officials have formed a steering committee with local manufacturers, he said, so that they can learn the exact staffing needs.
The message of good paying jobs seems to be getting out, said Jim Kynor, Pikes Peak Community College associate dean of manufacturing, workforce. The college has record enrollment in its electronics and machining classes this school year. And, Kynor is getting more calls from manufacturers looking for employees, he said.
“They are saying ‘send me someone who is trainable,’” he said. “In just the past month, five companies have called me looking for employees.”
51 percent of manufacturers say there is a serious shortage of machinists, operators and technicians.
39 percent of Millennials — those born between 1980 and 2000 — find the manufacturing industry interesting.
13,420 people in El Paso County were employed in manufacturing in 2009.
Sources: The Manufacturing Institute, Kelly Services, Pikes Peak Workforce Center, and Southern Colorado Economic Forum