Filling the hundreds of thousands of open manufacturing jobs starts with educators telling students about the opportunities of earning a two-year degree and introducing manufacturing as a career, a panel of Omaha industry leaders said Wednesday.
"Schools are telling students to study four-year degrees when they should go to a two-year (school)," said Rogene Smith, director of human resources at Conductix-Wampfler. "You can have a very lucrative career in manufacturing."
It's also the responsibility of parents to explain that skilled jobs can be good-paying jobs and lead to better jobs, Smith said. The mother of two, ages 18 and 24, she said she sees how young people view skilled trades because of what society tells them.
"It's on us. It's on our generation and how we raised our kids," she said.
Part of a series on workforce trends put on by the Greater Omaha Young Professionals, the event focused on manufacturing drew about 60 people. Other panelists included Valmont's vice president of operations for global irrigation, Steve LeGrand; Distefano Technology and Manufacturing sales manager Matt Grabowski; and NMC Inc. corporate recruiter Joe LeGrand. Matt King, plant human resources manager with ConAgra Foods, was moderator.
The panelists said finding skilled labor is their biggest challenge. NMC Inc., is advertising for up to 75 jobs at any given time. Conductix struggles to find welders, machinists, programmers and engineers. And welders at Valmont have had to put in 30 percent overtime this year because of customer expectations and too few workers to get the jobs done.
Each problem goes back to educators and how they introduce manufacturing and two-year degrees to youths, Joe LeGrand said.
"There's a lot of opportunity for two-year degrees that's not being broadcast," he said, noting companies like his offer programs that pay for a student's two-year education and guarantee a job at the end. It's a sweet, rare deal for a 20-something to graduate with no student debt and a five-figure annual wage, he said.
Educators also aren't telling students there are opportunities to move up in the industry, said Grabowski. He earned a two-year degree in the mid-1980s with the desire to climb the leadership latter. Now, he's a sales manager.
Steve LeGrand said the good news is that there's a real resurgence of manufacturing that should attract workers. Trends include companies nearshoring, or contracting with neighboring countries, and seeing the value in the efficiencies of shorter supply chains. Technology is also changing what working inside a manufacturing plant looks like. Many are automated and sophisticated, he said.
Smith agreed that manufacturing is no longer dangerous and dreary. It's dynamic and growing, she said.
But the evolving technical nature of the industry is also a challenge. It's limiting who can do the jobs but opens opportunities for people who hadn't previously considered manufacturing. Smith said she knows of a small business owner who left that industry to pursue a job at Conductix because of the opportunities in manufacturing.
Joe LeGrand said he recently heard "Dirty Jobs" star Mike Rowe talk about how in the 1970s there was a major marketing campaign to attract students to college because enrollment was down. The campaign included placing "Work smart, not hard" posters in schools. The poster depicted a happy college graduate and a dirty, down-and-out laborer.
Today, people in manufacturing can work smart and hard, Joe LeGrand said.
The panelists said they're addressing the workforce shortage by offering internships, job shadows and plant tours.
"If you want to get these students to see what you do on a day-to-day basis, they'd get excited about it," said Joe LeGrand.
Steve LeGrand joked that maybe the key is exposing the industry to even younger students, say elementary-age kids. "That's my way of getting an edge over you guys," he said with a laugh.
"We might have to go to day cares now," joked Joe LeGrand.
Steve LeGrand said senior-level executives can help by funding skilled programs in high schools and community colleges. Companies also can partner with community colleges, noting he serves on the Metropolitan Community College Foundation Board. It'll take partnerships and time to fill manufacturing jobs, he said.
"It didn't take a whole lot of time to destroy it," he said, "but it's going to take time to build it back."