Last year, 47 hourly workers at Strohwig Industries took home more than $100,000 each.
With an average wage of $25 per hour, employees of this Richfield tooling and machining manufacturer raked in six figures partly because of monthly profit-sharing bonuses, but mostly because a shortage of skilled workers is forcing many of them to work overtime.
“We’re constantly looking for qualified employees,” says Mike Retzer, the controller for Strohwig, located about 25 miles northwest of Milwaukee.
Strohwig is not alone. In March, 250 employers, instructors and community members representing Wisconsin’s manufacturing industry met in Madison for a conference hosted by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state business lobby.
The goal of the conference, titled “The Workforce Paradox,” was to address the skills gap that is preventing manufacturers from filling vacant positions and is stalling job creation in Wisconsin.
Vicki Markussen, executive director of the 7 Rivers Alliance, said the strong metal manufacturing sector in the Coulee Region has led to a strong demand for welders and machinists.
Now that the economy is beginning to recover, those companies are hiring again, but many of the workers have moved on to other jobs, and there aren’t enough new trainees to fill the need.
“These people aren’t there,” she said. “The workforce just isn’t there.”
But the jobs are, says Jim Morgan, vice president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and president of the WMC Foundation.
“People don’t understand we are still employing (more than) 430,000 people in manufacturing in this state,” he said.“I don’t think Wisconsin survives without (manufacturing). This state was built on it.”
The number of manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin had fallen in recent years, from nearly 600,000 in 1998 to just over 450,000 today, though manufacturing still accounts for about 16 percent of all state jobs. And in the past year, it has begun to rebound.
In fact, the industry has room to grow even larger, but there aren’t enough workers for the available jobs. A recent WMC survey found that 43 percent of employers said they were having trouble hiring new employees, with more than half of those citing a lack of qualified employees as the reason.
To help close this skills gap, companies across the state are adopting strategies to get high school students interested in manufacturing-related jobs.
Take Sentry Equipment Corp., an Oconomowoc manufacturing firm that makes more than 50 products geared toward saving energy and increasing sustainability. The company has provided on-the-job training for local resident Lee Heinecke and even paid for some of his classes at a nearby technical college.
Rick Steinke, the company’s vice president of manufacturing, says Sentry is willing to spend a little extra time, money and effort to recruit younger workers. This is one way manufacturing companies can adapt to the current shortage in skilled workers: If you can’t find them, grow your own.
The Department of Workforce Development is also is working to close the gap, with a series of programs, some of which work with manufacturers to train potential employees.
“Manufacturing today is a high tech process involving highly sophisticated, computer-driven production equipment,” DWD spokesman John Dipko says, adding that just one-third of Wisconsin’s working adults have training that includes a two-year technical college degree or more.
Pilot program launched
Among the state programs is Wisconsin Workers Win or “W3,” which allows recently unemployed individuals to participate in six-week “boot camps” at manufacturers’ worksites to sharpen their skills and interact with potential employers. In addition to unemployment benefits, the 500 expected participants get a $75 a week stipend from the program, which is being tested in 10 southern Wisconsin counties, including Milwaukee, Rock, Racine and Kenosha.
“These programs add a little bit of urgency to solving the problem of getting people back to work,” Morgan says. “Once you get people back to work, you can start the on-the-job training.“
Morgan also stresses the importance of more collaboration between manufacturers, high schools and technical colleges.
“Manufacturers need to do a better job of getting people into their facilities, but schools need to advertise better, too,” Morgan says. “It’s a matter of manufacturing survival to get these programs in place.“
With the Baby Boomer generation on the brink of retirement, manufacturers such as Sentry are about to lose many employees with decades of experience. Unless these workers can be replaced with the same number of competent younger employees, the manufacturing industry will not be able to keep up with demand.
But many people, says Morgan of WMC, still think of manufacturing jobs as “dumb, dirty and dangerous.” He sees this as a threat to the state’s economic future: “Students’ perception of manufacturing jobs is outdated. Those are the jobs that are in demand.
“Unless we start to change people’s perceptions of manufacturing, we’re going to be in trouble for the long term.“
Tony Ptacek, chief financial officer of D&S Manufacturing in Black River Falls said his problem is finding young people interested in learning skills like welding because of the stigma attached to manufacturing jobs.
“We could grow faster if we thought there was a stronger availability of new talent,” Ptacek said.
When the company is hiring, Ptacek said they often host open houses to show prospective candidates what to expect at the plant, which makes steel parts for heavy equipment.
“We take pride in the quality of our facility, the cleanliness,” he said. “It’s not the stereotypical manufacturing facility that’s dirty … It’s a nice, clean safe place to work. That does a lot in convincing them.”
Jim Kitchen, the lead instructor for the Machine Tool Technology Program at Fox Valley Technical College, thinks there’s been a societal shift in what it means to be successful. He says students who might have been happy going to a two-year technical school have been persuaded to attend four-year institutions due to pressure from educators and parents.
“Everybody wants their kids to be the next president,” Kitchen says.
Steinke has also noticed this change in attitude toward manufacturing. He has worked at various Wisconsin manufacturing companies since 1982 and says that when he took a job in the industry after earning his degree at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, it was judged a good career move.
“There was pride in the workmanship,” Steinke recalls. “It wasn’t considered a bad thing to be in manufacturing.”
According to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average weekly salary for a manufacturing worker in Wisconsin was $1,035 in 2011, or about $54,000 a year.
And manufacturing promises to be a growth industry, assuming businesses can find enough qualified workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 14.3 percent national growth in the number of manufacturing jobs between 2010 and 2020.
Program launched career
Among the most innovative programs for getting young people interested in manufacturing careers is Bots IQ Wisconsin, a competition in which high school students design and build robots with the help of manufacturers. Retzer, head of the Milwaukee chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association, said companies, including Strohwig, sponsor teams, make parts for their robots and mentor students along the way.
Retzer gives the teams he sponsors a tour of Strohwig so they can see what manufacturing is actually about. He says they’re often surprised.
“They’re not dirty smoke-stack industries that everybody thinks is manufacturing,” Retzer says. “And they’re not the mundane, routine jobs. They’re mentally challenging and they’re very fulfilling from the mental and from the career and earnings part.”
Alex Leonhardt, a former Bots IQ competitor and current employee at Mahuta Tool in Germantown, says the competition got him interested in manufacturing, which has turned out to be lucrative.
“I actually had my mother call me a ‘factory rat’ when I first started working in the trade,” says Leonhardt, 23. “Then, over the last few years when my pay started to increase — she always did my taxes — she finally started to realize that I was making $10,000 more a year than she was, and I am not even at my final wage yet.”
Leonhardt works as a computer numerical control programmer, which means he reads the blueprints for a specific machine part and writes computer programs to ensure that they get cut properly from a solid block of steel.
Leonhardt is in the final stages of completing a five-year apprenticeship with Mahuta, which will earn him his journeyman’s card and the title of tool-and-die maker, meaning he is qualified to work in any tool-and-die shop in the nation. As part of the apprenticeship, Mahuta paid for him to get his two-year associate’s degree from Moraine Park Technical College.
When Lee Heinecke graduated from Oconomowoc High School in 2007, he, like many 18 year olds, had no idea what kind of a career he wanted to go into. So when his cousin told him about an opening at Sentry, Heinecke thought, “Why not?”
While Heinecke, 23, had toured a factory before — his uncle was a machinist — he started work at the company not knowing what to expect. He enjoyed the work and began taking classes at Waukesha County Technical College. Sentry paid for the first two semesters.
“I feel like there’s a lot of room for growth for me here,” he says. “I’m excited for it.”
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reporter Lukas Keapproth contributed to this report, which grew out of a UW-Madison journalism class taught by Professor Deborah Blum, in collaboration with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center (www.wisconsinwatch.org). The Center also collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and other news media.
All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.