MARSHALL - The message from representatives of several southwest Minnesota manufacturers was loud and clear at a listening session on workforce needs held Thursday. They need a bigger pool of skilled workers, and they need it fast.
The listening session, held at Southwest Minnesota State University, was one of 40 being conducted around the state to learn what kinds of workers and professionals are needed in Minnesota, and for what kinds of jobs. Event organizers said they hope to use this information to improve higher education and training programs and help fill the skills gap.
Participants in the session included representatives of a variety of manufacturing businesses, from custom fabrication and electronics, to food production businesses like the Schwan Food Co. and Jennie-O. Representatives of Minnesota state colleges and universities and area technical colleges were also present.
"It is important, from the manufacturing side of things, that we get engaged and talk about what we need," said John DeCramer, in opening remarks at the listening session. BH Electronics, where DeCramer is vice president of engineering, was one of the event's hosts.
Presenter Karen White of Bemidji State University's 360-degree Manufacturing and Applied Engineering Center of Excellence, presented employers with regional and statewide statistics for jobs in several different areas of manufacturing. The information included the demand for employees in each area, compared to the supply of graduates in each area, and other factors like the vacancy rate or projected growth for specific jobs. There appeared to be some employment gaps in the area of machine technology, with a 45 percent vacancy rate for computer-controlled machine tool programmers, she said. Other kinds of manufacturing jobs, like assemblers and fabricators, were projected to have a high rate of growth in the next few years.
White said the statistics didn't take into account employees pulled in from South Dakota or other neighboring states, "But we are aware that it is a factor."
Business representatives at the listening session said their biggest areas of concern for hiring were in the areas of production technology and automated systems. Some said it was hard to find employees able to run production lines or maintain machines, especially with the level of computer skills that are now necessary for the job. Production technology is also changing at a rapid pace, they said.
However, it was also more basic job skills that were lacking among potential employees. One concern voiced by all the manufacturers was the need for math, writing, computer and critical thinking skills, as well as "soft skills" like discipline and personal leadership.
"The real basic things are critical," even for line work, one participant said. And often, they can't be taught in on-the-job training.
Employers said they also needed workers who are flexible, willing to learn and good at problem solving.
SMSU Provost Beth Weatherby said there have been recent pushes to make higher education more "outcomes-based," which might help address employers' concerns. Outcome-based education takes an approach that would focus more on using critical thinking and problem-solving skills, she said.
The overall number of job applicants in manufacturing and technology fields is also low, employers said. With many experienced employees nearing retirement, recruitment efforts will be critical.
Based on employers' comments, White said, "The urgency is higher here than it was in Brainerd and St. Cloud."
Education representatives said universities and technical schools could work together with employers to help generate interest in manufacturing, as well as training the next generation of workers. Dawn Regnier, director of customized training and continuing education at Minnesota West Community and Technical Colleges, suggested working together on multiple levels, including elementary and secondary education.
"It has to be an entire partnership for this to work," Regnier said.