Faced with an aging workforce and ongoing demand to find more skilled workers, the manufacturing industry is collaborating with educators and government officials to prepare its next generation of employees.

“Manufacturing companies are very concerned about the lack of employees and where are they going to find employees to replace the high numbers of workers who are soon to be retiring,” said Mary Jane Stanchina, executive director of the Six District Educational Compact.

Gary Miller, director of training and development for Kyocera SGS Precision Tools in Cuyahoga Falls and Munroe Falls, added, “there's not a lot of people out there with skills right now and we're trying to remedy that by supporting the local school systems that offer programs that support manufacturing.”

MAGNET surveyed manufacturing company leaders in Northeast Ohio about the issues and the challenges they are facing. Of the 381 responses, 86 percent said it was “difficult or somewhat difficult to attract qualified applicants,” and 60 percent said “an ability to attract new skilled workers is hindering growth.” The survey can be viewed at www.manufacturingsuccess.org.

Ken Trenner, Stow’s economic development director, said he participated in a meeting a couple years ago in which city manufacturers, local educators and city leaders discussed the large amounts of job opportunities available in manufacturing, many of which go unfilled because employers have difficulty locating workers.

In that meeting, Trenner recalled company leaders said if someone has good “soft skills” (solid work ethic, punctuality, helpful attitude) basic math skills, and a mechanical aptitude, “they will train you.”

“There's a lot of different career paths” available in manufacturing, he said.

The job gains in manufacturing over the past several years are the most sustained gains since the early 1990s, said economist Bill LaFayette, owner of local economic consulting firm Regionomics. 

As of September 2018, the state added 16,100 manufacturing jobs during the past year, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

What companies are looking for

Kathleen Sawyer, executive vice president of Esterle Mold and Machine Co. on Commerce Drive in Stow, said her company has machinists, apprentice machinists, and degreed engineers working in one of her facilities that engineers and builds molds. In Esterle’s neighboring plastics facility, the employees are mold setters, processors and plastic inspectors. Sawyer noted that “hands-on, mechanically inclined” people are the best fit for work in either building.

Skilled machinists need to have “strong math skills,” a solid work ethic, be able to work unsupervised and be willing to invest in purchasing machinist tools, she said. While her firm will train employees, Sawyer emphasized they want machinist candidates who have experience working with their hands on cars or doing general handyman work.

“When we interview, we ask … ‘how do you know about machining? Do you have any relatives [who did machining], did your grandpa do it?’” explained Sawyer.

Miller said his company's entry-level positions are set-up operators, where they work with a six-axis Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machine.

Debra Smith, human resources senior manager with GOJO, which has a manufacturing facility on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls, said her company seeks candidates “with technical and problem-solving competencies, especially as our world moves to more automated technology.”

Improving perceptions of manufacturing work

Negative and inaccurate perceptions of manufacturing work sometimes deter young people from pursuing employment and also, at times, keeps their parents from encouraging their children to journey down that career path, according to local manufacturers.

After he gave a tour of the Kyocera facility to a group of students, Miller asked a student what she thought of it.

“She says ‘oh it’s wonderful,’” recalled Miller. “I said ‘what did you think before [you visited]?’ She said, ‘I thought the people would be sad … doing the same thing over and over in a dirty job.’ I said ‘was it like that?’ She said ‘no, they were happy and they did a good job.’”

That story, Miller said, reflected the “misconception” that parents and students sometimes have that manufacturing is “filthy and you leave this place with less fingers than you started with.”  He emphasized that manufacturing today is “different from your grandpa’s old manufacturing. It’s no longer dirty … it’s Computer Numeric Control machines, it’s state-of-the art now … We have a modern manufacturing facility that you could eat off the floor it's so clean.”

Stanchina noted the Six District Educational Compact a while back dropped the word “vocational” from its programming information because “people kept thinking it was like their grandfather's vocational education. A lot of brawn and no brain. That's not the way it is today.”

Many students, parents focus on college

Another issue at play: many students and parents are laser-focused on young people going to college and do not give serious consideration to a career in manufacturing.

“The college aspect is pushed so much,” said Sawyer. “Go to college, go to college, that the manufacturing [area] I think is looked [at] in a different light. We’ve got to get it [in] more of a positive light.”

Miller added a lot of parents encourage their children to head to a four-year college “right out of high school … Maybe they want to go to college later, but they want to earn some money now.”

Both Miller and Sawyer said they speak with parents and students about the opportunities available in manufacturing.

Sawyer said she sits on the advisory board for the Computer-Aided Design and Engineering Technologies program (CADET) offered by the Six District Educational Compact and the company brings student groups through the facility for tours.

She said Esterle hires high school students to work part-time in the plastics facility and noted the manufacturing jobs at Esterle do not require a college degree.

“You can be put to work right out of high school and you could be earning money immediately,” she said.

Miller said his company hires high school students who are between their junior and senior years to work at Kyocera during the summer, and to work a reduced-hour schedule during the school year. He added the firm has “quite a few success stories” of young people who end up working for Kyocera full time.

Miller said Kyocera will completely pay for a student’s apprenticeship program at Stark State College and offers a tuition reimbursement program.

“If they get an A, we pay 100 percent of their tuition,” noted Miller. “Imagine their kid graduating from college and not having any debt.”

Miller also noted Kyocera donates tools to high schools and colleges that have machining programs. He also provides guidance to high school students on building a resume and how to interview for a job. 

Celebrating manufacturing jobs, looking ahead

ConxusNEO is an organization that unites manufacturers, educators and government officials in an effort to “better align” training with the jobs that are available, said Trenner.

Stanchina said ConxusNEO last June organized a Signing Day event at Kyocera in Cuyahoga Falls. Instead of athletes announcing where they were going to college to continue their athletic career, five students who were being hired to work for manufacturers had a chance to enjoy the spotlight. Two of them were from the Compact's CADET program. She added the event focused on the fact that each student was employed, “making a lot of money” with benefits, and had the chance to receive tuition reimbursement. Each student was set to earn in the ballpark of $32,000 per year, she said.

“I think that is just fine for somebody who just graduated from high school,” said Stanchina. “I think the sky's the limit for kids that are interested in something like this.”

More collaboration is starting to occur. Trenner said Stow city officials are working with the schools and some manufacturers to form a partnership. He noted city and school officials are trying to make themselves “more familiar with the needs of the manufacturers,” and figure out how best to help manufacturers.

“We're just getting started,” said Trenner. “Everybody's pretty excited about it.”

Editor’s note: Mark Williams of the Columbus Dispatch contributed to this story.

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, pkeren@recordpub.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.