Manufacturing a new skilled workforce

Manufacturing Day
Regional employers and school districts in southwest Washington participated in Manufacturing Day to help connect youth with career opportunities in advanced manufacturing. Photo: Evergreen Public Schools

Half of southwest Washington’s manufacturing 14,000-strong workforce is 45 or older, and regional employers and educators want to ensure there’s a steady supply of incoming labor as they retire by better connecting youth with those job opportunities.

Along with internships and entry-level positions, a major component of the effort to replenish the workforce is simply making young people aware that the jobs exist. That was one of the objectives of an Oct. 9 Manufacturing Day event hosted by Clark College and as part of a collaboration among the college, Workforce Southwest Washington and Partners in Careers.

“One potential cause for the skilled labor shortage is that young people aren’t entering the manufacturing and construction fields at the rates they once did,” said Darcy Hoffman, Business Services Director at Workforce Southwest Washington. “We’re working to change that.”

Fortunately for employers, a 2016 report examining the region’s population found “even in rural areas, the absolute number of young adults has risen, resulting in a pool of potential workers to fill the pipeline for in-demand advanced manufacturing jobs.”

WSW previously hosted a Youth Employment Summit event in April involving more than 40 companies and 600 students. Founded in 2002, the organization helps lead the local workforce development system in Clark, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties and has invested more than $82.3 million in the region.

For employers such as Silicon Forest Electronics, the events are opportunities to expose 11-12th graders to their field while dispelling common misconceptions about industry job growth. Executive Vice President General Manager Jay Schmidt told Lens that “there’s a negative stereotype around electronic manufacturing that this kind of work is not done in the U.S. The type of work that is going on is advanced manufacturing, things that are high complexity, and that work will continue to stay here and continue to grow.”

He added: “Students know what they know – what they see on the internet and what they hear through their friends and what they hear through their parents. So how do you mitigate that?”

Graphic Packaging International Human Resources Manager Katie Muldoon told Lens that in contrast to the perception of job uncertainty, the type of manufacturing jobs with her company have long-term stability. Two thirds of the employees at their Portland plant have worked there for 25 years, she added.

“People can have good careers,” she said. “It’s really nice that we have this huge number of people employed with good jobs, with the ability to grow, and they’re making products in the good old USA.”

While Schmidt’s company doesn’t have trouble attracting engineers, thanks to an internship program with nearby universities, “we’ve tried to develop pathways for youth, particularly at risk or disadvantage youth who may be needing career pathways to not just get a job but develop a work study pathway that works with their higher education.” One way to do that is through Partners in Careers, a nonprofit that helps employers create internships for post-high school graduates.

“If they (the graduate) desire to go to higher ed and take college classes, now they’ve got a current work study pathway,” Schmidt said.

There’s apparently plenty of potential employees. A 2018 report by the Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative (CWWC) found that approximately 10,039 young adults ages 16-24 living in southwest Washington are neither in school nor employed. Many of the internship jobs are entry-level, but they give students a chance to build “soft skills” while deciding if it’s a career they want to further develop, Muldoon said.

“They really don’t need any training coming in,” she added. “We provide all the training that’s needed. We are really looking for people who have a mechanical mindset. Obviously, we train them on all of the specifics, but not everybody has that kind of mechanical orientation.”

Along with high school students, Schmidt said companies such as his are asked to even discuss manufacturing with middle school students.

“The theory right now is that it does help them to plug in early and be aware of the careers out there,” Toni Wise said. She is the College, Career and Technical Education Business Outreach Coordinator at Evergreen Public Schools.

“When I go out and talk to a business, they immediately understand the value of having students explore early and even get some experience in high school, so when they come out they can go into their direction and fill that (labor) gap,” she added. “We’re trying to connect with businesses who understand that we need to keep our curriculum relevant. In order to do that we need to have career-connected opportunities with business that are connected to the career pathways our students are pursuing.…They may start out wanting to be architect or a doctor or work in manufacturing, but they may not know all the ways they can plug their passions into something. That’s so valuable to them.

“The sooner they start that exploration the more prepared they are to make those decisions post high school,” she added.



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