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Creative Solutions: To prevent staff burnout and provide training to future workers, Clow Stamping has been hiring Central Lakes College manufacturing students to work part-time.

Building a Future

Central Minnesota manufacturers are eager to grow. Here’s how they are working to develop a well-stocked pool of job applicants.

By Gene Rebeck | Photography by John Linn

As personnel manager for Clow Stamping, a Merrifield-based metal fabrication and stamping company, Twyla Flaws knows all too well how hard it is to find qualified manufacturing personnel. Clow Stamping, which is owned by Initiative Foundation Trustee Reggie Clow, employs about 450 and needs to hire more. How many? “I’m sure 25—easily,” Flaws said.

 “We have an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent in this area,” Flaws said. “They say when you get below 5 percent, there just aren’t qualified people out there” to hire.

Flaws’ experience is a common challenge in the region and across Minnesota. The truth is that for many manufacturers, it can be a challenge to find the kind of skilled employees these businesses need to keep growing—or in some cases, to simply stay in place.

But manufacturers in Central Minnesota aren’t sitting on their hands. They’re talking directly to students, teachers and counselors, and letting them know about career opportunities in this rapidly changing field. They’re providing schools with the kind of advanced, computer-driven equipment used on their shop floors.

They’re also partnering with foundations, chambers of commerce, economic development organizations and other entities to reach out to students at high schools and colleges. Those partners have plenty of reasons to help. Manufacturing is crucial to Central Minnesota’s economic success. And they want it to stay that way.

State Leader
“The core manufacturing region in this state is the seven-county metro area, Sherburne County and Stearns County,” said Bob Kill, president and CEO of Enterprise Minnesota, a Minneapolis-based organization that provides services and information to the state’s manufacturers. In fact, Central Minnesota is “the strongest modern manufacturing area” in the state. While two-thirds of the approximately 7,500 manufacturers in the state have 20 employees or fewer, Stearns and Sherburne have “a higher percentage of companies above that,” according to Kill.

How have Stearns and Sherburne built such a durable sector? Partly, their success is due to the sheer diversity of the region’s manufacturers, which make products and components for sectors including agriculture, medical devices, motor vehicles and recreational and motor sports. The region’s strong transportation assets (freeways, railroads, access to the Twin Cities) make it easy for manufacturers to ship in components and ship out products, while being able to operate outside the crowded metro. What’s more, area manufacturers “can draw from all directions for possible employees and suppliers,” Kill said.

In short, it’s fertile soil for manufacturing. But there’s one element that’s in short supply. Enterprise Minnesota regularly surveys state manufacturers about their concerns and needs. Kill noted when those surveyed were asked about opening a new plant, 10 to 20 years ago their first concern was, “Are there incentives? Today, it’s, ‘Is there a workforce in the community?’”

The workforce challenge, Kill observed, is rooted in many dynamics. Younger people, and those willing to switch careers, “just aren’t available.” That especially affects smaller communities. What’s more, skills are moving more toward automation, science, technology and computers.

Meanwhile, a great many manufacturers are seeing opportunities to grow. Albany-based Wells Concrete, which has four production locations in the Upper Midwest and about 900 employees, has close to 60 positions open. “That’s clearly affecting their growth,” Kill said. “We hear that kind of problem all the time.”

Changing Field
Community colleges, the key source of trained manufacturing workers, “are doing as good of a job as they can,” Kill said. But they often don’t have the number of applicants to produce more of the types of skilled employees that manufacturers need. In addition, the generally strong economy takes many potential manufacturing employees out of the college system pool because they have good enough jobs that they aren’t eager to look elsewhere.

The Initiative Foundation’s support efforts include a fund developed in partnership with the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce that’s designed to help students with limited means explore careers in manufacturing at community colleges in Central Minnesota. While Central Lakes can provide tuition assistance, the Initiative Foundation’s co-sponsored funds can help lowerincome manufacturing students purchase equipment, textbooks, even gas cards. The goal is to help these students in need “enter a highly remunerative field,” said Don Hickman, the Foundation’s vice president for community and workforce development. Wages in manufacturing start in the $13 to $16 range, Hickman said, and that figure “can quickly advance if you have the right work ethic.”

“Even during the recession, this is one sector that remained strong and is rapidly growing now,” Hickman added. “We have all kinds of advanced manufacturing in the region—some that rely more on international trade and others that are focused domestically. That gives us a good buffer for ups and downs in the marketplace.”

The Foundation also sponsors “manufacturing week” tours around the region in which students and their parents can visit area facilities and learn more about manufacturing environments and opportunities. “Many manufacturers are now intentionally recruiting a range of people who, historically, have not been as well represented in the workplace because there are so many job openings,” said Matt Varilek, the Initiative Foundation’s president and CEO. “I don’t know a manufacturer in the region that wouldn’t add employees if they could find people with the right set of skills.”

 While the Foundation can’t make grants directly to a for-profit entity, it can and does offer technical assistance grants to partner organizations. One such recipient is St. Cloud State University, which provides a variety of services for manufacturing, such as marketing assistance. In addition, the Initiative Foundation has helped schools across the region establish robotics clubs. These clubs can show students how STEM-related subjects and activities can be fun and challenging—and that, in turn, can open their minds to manufacturing careers.

That’s good news when you consider that manufacturing isn’t a sector that’s on young people’s radar. Partly that’s a perception problem: Manufacturing often conjures up images of dirty factories and back-breaking physical labor. But as Hickman noted, “Manufacturing is light years away from what it was when I was a boy. It tends to be almost entirely computer driven or navigated. It’s also a very clean profession now, and very safe.”

Browerville.jpgSKILLS IN ACTION: Browerville High School students learn how to use the school’s plasma cutter.

Opportunities Abound
One entity that has received a lot of credit and attention for its work in changing those perceptions is Bridges Career Academies and Workplace Connection in Brainerd, which helps K-12 and post-secondary schools prepare students to meet the requirements of regional employers. “It’s really trying to introduce young people at an early enough age so that they see alternatives to getting a fouryear degree,” Kill said. Many manufacturing skills can be earned with a two-year degrees or even a certificate.

Colleges also are reaching out to the next generation. “The colleges and the manufacturers are getting much more aggressive in trying to figure out how to work together in order to prepare the workforce of today and to make sure that the technology that’s needed is available within the school,” Kill said.

At the same time, colleges also are trying to access the current workforce as a source of manufacturing employees. Pine Technical College in Pine City offers on-site training programs for entrylevel workers who show interest in and aptitude for higher-level manufacturing skills, but who can’t take time away from work to go to classes. “It allows employers to hire people off the street and train on the job,” said Pine Tech President Joe Mulford.

Then there’s Chad Becker, the CEO of Burnsville-based MetaFarms, Inc., which develops production-side software programs for farmers. Becker, who grew up in Browerville, said that he was “fortunate enough to get an education and be exposed to technology”—exposure he was able to convert into a career. “But not everybody has that chance.”

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Last year, Becker and his wife established the Paula and Chad Becker Partner Fund, which is hosted by the Initiative Foundation. The fund plans to direct its grant awards to schools in the Browerville area to help acquire manufacturing equipment for enhanced and market-ready student skills development. In April, it made its first donation to the Browerville Public Schools system—a Logitrace system, which allows complex parts to be designed and laser-cut digitally. The
Beckers hope to add to the fund in the future and to make a couple of “fairly sizable” donations per year.

Clow Stamping also has been getting creative. This past summer, it began to hire Central Lakes College manufacturing students to work part-time. “It takes a lot more coordination on the part of the employer” when it comes to scheduling, Flaws said. But Clow doesn’t want to burn out its full-time workers, who have been putting in plenty of overtime.

The company also is hoping to catch the attention of future employees. It offers regular tours of its facility with Central Lakes College students. It also works with Bridges (which Flaws co-founded) and co-sponsors a “Manufacturing Week” program that introduces young people to career opportunities in manufacturing. Regional manufacturers and their supporters don’t see the battle for employees ebbing anytime soon. In a sense, that’s not a bad thing—it’s a reflection of a strong economy. Still, they know that their future depends upon a skilled workforce. And that’s what manufacturing firms across Central Minnesota are working hard to build.

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