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Growing a Skilled Manufacturing Workforce

One tip: Have students from your local high school tour your company

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Kristen Nelson, plant manager at Novelis in Scriba: betting on creating custom education programs.

If you can’t find the skilled workers that your manufacturing firm needs, you can develop your own workforce.

But first, it’s vital to make sure that you can generate enough interest.

Randy Wolken, president and CEO of the Manufacturers Association of Central New York, Inc. recommends inviting high school students to see your facility.

“They don’t have an awareness of the great work that gets done and the work they could be doing,” Wolken said. “Go to the high schools as guests. We also facilitate that. If companies skip that, they miss an important part of students getting interested. Otherwise, they won’t even consider it, though it’s a great career.”

As October is Manufacturing Month, it can be an opportune time to invite schools to the factory or to seek an opportunity to present at schools.

Through a school program during the summer, some jobs may be accessible to students as young as 16, which Wolken thinks is a good way to get students familiar with manufacturing at an entry level.

“A big barrier is not seeing themselves working there,” he said. “They can also shadow people and watch how they work to give them confidence. We have experience of people in tech ed getting excited working in companies in the manufacturing sector. Once they’re there, they can train them in how it’s done and how to do certain operations. That’s a paid activity. Young people want to get paid. There’s a lot of ‘wins’ here.”

Although this model represents a shift from recruiting only through job boards and help-wanted ads, Wolken said that it’s a “necessary change” as so many skilled manufacturing jobs go unfilled.

As another means of developing a skilled workforce, manufacturers also work with educators such as community colleges and tech schools to get just the skills they need. MACNY can help facilitate these partnerships.

“When we partner with educators, manufacturers can ensure curriculum is relevant for our day-to-day operations, specifically, math and technologies portions,” said Kristen Nelson, plant manager at Novelis in Scriba. “Development of these programs goes beyond the basic course syllabus and defines classes that help with more immediate integration into the workforce. We are fortunate to have visionary leaders on our team like Andy Quinn who were able to understand the importance of creating a strong workforce pipeline and developed partnerships, not only with educational institutions but also with other area industry partners.”

Nelson said that the return on investment for creating a custom education program can be as short as up to four years, depending upon the student and the program. Usually, the ROI begins once the candidates are eligible to become interns, working on real projects alongside regular employees.

Novelis has developed or supported programs including PEB scholarships, which interview and choose two to three candidates annually and offer $2,000 per year scholarships to each with a guarantee of at least one summer of internship.

Another is the P-Tech program, “a key industry partner,” Nelson said, “with P-Tech faculty on shadowing, mentoring and internships.”

In addition, Novelis provides a CCC technician certification program.

“We rolled out multiple cohorts of electrical and mechanical certificate programs to progress our operator workforce into mechanics and electricians,” Nelson said.

Integrating interns into company culture and giving them the tools and curriculum they need to become successful helps foster employee loyalty.

“This gives them the security that they will have fundamental knowledge of how to perform in their first career-focused job without the fear of not knowing what to do,” Nelson said. “It helps give peace of mind that they won’t be ‘thrown to the wolves’ when they start with us. In addition, if they are good performers, we lock them in for full-time employment prior to graduation date, ensuring trust that we want to invest more in them.”