Manufacturing A Workforce: $20 Million In Training Dollars

A $20 million pot of state grants to help manufacturers and other industries train workers in needed skills is opening up October 1.

Terry Berden, CEO of Great Lakes Stainless in Traverse City, knows its value.

The Traverse City fabricating company was awarded $10,500 in a previous round of funding from the Skilled Trades Training Fund and used the money to train about a dozen new and existing workers in principles of lean manufacturing – including methods or efforts to reduce or eliminate waste in business processes and ultimately improve operations.

Berden said the training has helped Great Lakes Stainless be more competitive and grow. And he said he wouldn’t have been able to upgrade the skills of as many people without the state funds.

“We appreciate the program,” Berden said.

The Skilled Trades Training program – whose funding is doubling this year from $10 million to $20 million – is among state initiatives that are giving a boost to manufacturing. From new videos designed to dispel myths about skilled-trades jobs, to an apprenticeship-style program making its northern Michigan debut through Baker College in Cadillac, the manufacturing sector is seeing attention to a vital area: talent.

“There’s lots of fronts … we can’t just have a single front that we’re working on,” said Delaney McKinley, director of human resource policy and membership development at the Michigan Manufacturers Association.

The Skilled Trades Training program is important, she said, because “part of the challenge that we have right now is tons of outstanding open jobs. But the people who are applying for those jobs, don’t have the right skills. This will help us ‘upskill’ workers so they can perform these jobs that are so high in demand right now.”

The state fund provides competitive grants to fund employer-driven training in high-demand occupations. In the case of manufacturing, that could include electricians, welders, machinists and CNC operators, said Stephanie Comai, director of the Michigan Talent Investment Agency. Businesses that receive funds must commit to hire or retain individuals at the completion of their training, which can be both classroom and on-site. The program’s training is generally of short duration – six weeks to six months, Comai said.

The money flows through Michigan Works! agencies. Janie McNabb, chief operating officer of Northwest Michigan Works!, said the agency works with employers on their applications to “put together a package that best meets the needs of the employer, but also a competitive package” for the state to consider.

The state will begin accepting applications with the Oct. 1 start of its fiscal year and the money goes fast; Comai said that all funds last year were obligated by the end of November and requests have outstripped available money.
Applications need to be compelling, said McNabb. “As the word gets out, and now there’s more money this year, it’s going to be very competitive, and it’s going to be very quick.”

She said the region last year received 14 awards totaling $483,229, and the funds were used to train 595 workers and generated 107 new jobs.

Also of benefit to manufacturers, and a longer-term commitment between employer and employee, is the Michigan Advanced Technician Training program. The initiative targets two critical issues – a widening skills gap and an aging workforce – and is delivered through colleges using a standardized curriculum developed to meet specific industry needs. Begun in Southeast Michigan, the three-year program combines classroom instruction with on-the-job training, with a participating employer paying for a selected student’s college tuition and also paying a wage.

“It is a great opportunity for employers to grow their own talent, end up with someone who is highly skilled,” said Comai.

Baker College in Cadillac is the first in northern Michigan to participate in the program, with an associate’s degree in mechatronics. It focuses on the electrical, mechanical and electronic skills needed to identify, analyze and solve manufacturing problems, and is a “broad-based curriculum that prepares a person to be able to troubleshoot and maintain” factory systems, said Mark Lagerwey, the college’s dean of business and technology.

Students, who must have a high school diploma or GED credential, generally will attend the college and work at sponsoring employers in eight-week intervals. A key element of the program, Lagerwey said, is that “when the student goes into the workplace, after they have completed a school session, they are placed in a work environment where they are actually applying the skills they learned in the classroom.”

The program’s nine participating employers include Skilled Manufacturing Inc. in Traverse City and Kalkaska Screw Products Inc. in Kalkaska. The first cohort, launched in June, contains 16 students. They will complete in June 2018 and must commit to stay with their sponsoring employer through at least June 2020.Berden1

Students of a far younger age are targets of videos newly created for the state that address common misconceptions and perceptions about skilled trades – including health care, information technology, welding and manufacturing – and highlight opportunities. One series, featuring former Discovery Channel “Dirty Jobs” host and current CNN “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” star Mike Rowe, is designed to engage middle and high school students, while another series, with PBS “Under the Radar Michigan” host Tom Daldin, is geared toward K-5 students.

Why is it important to capture interest at a young age? “That’s when kids start getting impressions of what they want to do, where they want to go in school,” said the Michigan Manufacturing Association’s McKinley. “We know that there are not as many young people interested in joining the ranks of manufacturing, and we need to change that trend.”

Amy Lane is a former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered energy and utilities, state government and business for nearly 25 years.