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During her sophomore year at Kettle Moraine High School in Wales, Wis., about 30 miles outside Milwaukee, Tara Britten ditched class and was in danger of expulsion. “They thought I was stupid,” Britten says. “Nobody would challenge me at the level I needed to be challenged at, so it made me angry and bored.”
Her attitude changed last fall when the 16-year-old junior started participating in a nonprofit program called Second Chance Partners that teaches high schoolers skills they can use for manufacturing jobs. Britten, who was not expecting to graduate, is now earning $8 an hour working for a local manufacturer and completing her high school curriculum. She’s also learning such skills as welding and reading blueprints and is confident she can get a shipyard welding job that pays $15 an hour and offers benefits when she graduates next year.
A recent survey of 1,600 manufacturing companies in the U.S. shows that nearly half have openings for line workers, skilled trade workers, and engineers, but many have trouble filling the positions. The survey, released by industrial product sourcing and supplier selection website ThomasNet.com, echoes other reports of skilled labor shortages. Instead of lamenting the problem, manufacturers are helping educators establish training programs for prospective employees, says Linda Rigano, executive director of strategic services at Thomas Industrial Network, which runs ThomasNet.com. She estimates that there are dozens of similar partnerships in the U.S. and says, “we’re seeing more pop up every day.”
Training partnerships are the only way for domestic manufacturers to rebound, says Ira S. Wolfe, whose Success Performance Solutions in Lancaster, Pa., helps small businesses recruit and hire employees. Criticism that vocational training leads to exploitation of low-paid, nonunion labor is outdated and unrealistic, Wolfe says. “The trades are not just about swinging a hammer any more; they involve applying brainpower and advanced education.”
Five years ago, label and adhesives maker Tailored Label Products, which is near Britten’s high school, joined the Second Chance Partners program she attends. In 2009, TLP, which has 75 employees, turned a 2,000-square-foot office area in its facility into a classroom, taking on the cost of outfitting the space for students. Each semester, 10 to 15 students do two hours of classwork on site every day and then work as apprentices at TLP and other local factories.
At TLP they rotate through departments with a mentor, learning both unskilled and skilled tasks such as digital printing and finishing. TLP has hired two former students as full-time employees, where they can earn between $10 and $20 an hour and get medical and dental benefits as well as employer-matching 401(k), profit-sharing, and wellness plans, says Tracy Tenpenny, TLP’s vice president for sales and marketing.
Since its inception in 2000 (it grew out of an earlier program founded in 1996), 158 students have completed the 21-month Second Chance program, which has had a 90 percent graduation rate, according to Executive Director Stephanie Borowski. More than half of the graduates continue to work at one of program’s business partners, with 62 percent going on to full-time employment, 29 percent enrolling in post-secondary education, 5 percent continuing in apprenticeship programs, and 4 percent joining the military. Second Chance is funded by local school districts and the 70 Wisconsin businesses that participate, along with grants and donations.
In Pennsylvania’s Bucks and Montgomery counties, 50 manufacturing companies have formed a separate entity, BuxMont Manufacturing Consortium, which partners with two-year colleges and trade schools to hire and train their graduates. Its programs target young people interested in science and engineering and good at working with their hands, says Michael Araten, third-generation president and chief executive of The Rodon Group, a plastic components maker in Hatfield, Pa.
Although the family-owned, 100-employee business sends some of its parts overseas for assembly, it manufactures all its products in the U.S. Many of its competitors moved production off shore over the past 30 years, Araten says. Now he sees many returning due to supply chain complications and shipping expenses. “We’re in year three of what I think will be a 10-year transition back to U.S. manufacturing as a world leader,” he says.
Skilled workers at companies in the Pennsylvania consortium typically make $35,000 to $50,000 annually, plus overtime pay, health care, and employer-matching 401(k) accounts, Araten says. That future sounds pretty good to Brody Kolpin, 17, who says he “kind of gave up” on school after his freshman year at Mukwonago High School, also about 30 miles from Milwaukee, until he joined a Second Chance Partners program in September 2011.
He now works in maintenance at a Mukwonago manufacturer and is taking classes at program partner Waukesha Generac Power Systems. “I’m very mechanically inclined. I love to take things apart and see how they work and then put them back together,” he says.