NKY manufacturing fights for more workers

James Pilcher

A worker welds sheet metal at Mazak Corporation in Elsmere.

FLORENCE – How can you convince an 18-year-old to go into manufacturing as a possible career?

That's the crux of the ongoing tensions between Northern Kentucky's manufacturing and the economic development community and the agency charged with training those potential new workers.

Those tensions have been building ever since Gateway Community & Technical College opened a brand new $26.8 million center six years ago, but has only been able to graduate about 200 qualified manufacturing workers a year – half the number it originally promised.

"Where does the relationship stand? Quite frankly, our manufacturing clients are not happy right now," said Dan Tobergte, president and chief executive officer for the Tri-County Economic Development Corporation (Tri-Ed), the region's primary economic development agency.

"But in some ways, it is a good problem to have. It means our industries are growing ... but they currently have a lot of openings they can't fill, and that is only going to get worse when we might need (to hire) up to 600 folks a year."

Another reason for the displeasure: Those manufacturing executives spent a lot of political capital in the last decade to get Gateway's new building paid for and opened, knowing they had jobs to fill.

"We are starting to feel the pressure on this and trying to head this off before it gets to a critical stage," said Brian Papke, president of Elsmere-based Mazak International, a machine-tool maker that operates one of Northern Kentucky's largest manufacturing plants.

We're not talking about a small cottage industry for the area. Manufacturing employment increased 17.2 percent between 2009 and 2014, and now accounts for nearly 20,000 jobs in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties. The industry also represents almost 12 percent of Northern Kentucky's workforce, making manufacturing the third largest private employment sector behind only trade/transportation/utilities and professional/business. Those numbers are at their highest point in a decade, with the sector more than overcoming the major losses seen in the Great Recession.

Manufacturing jobs have made up 10 percent or more of the total workforce in three Northern Kentucky counties.

That matches national trends, as does the fact that the region's manufacturing workforce is aging and will need to be replaced soon. For example, more than a third of the workforce at Mazak's local plant are 55 or older.

But all involved with the dilemma say that neither the quality of Gateway's programming nor the center itself are not at fault (although the school has lost $7 million in annual funding over the last seven years).

Rather, the issue is getting students in the program in the first place, whether they're fresh out of high school, returning veterans or women looking for a better paying career. That means that both the college and employers are going to have to win the hearts and minds of not only potential new students, but parents and teachers as well.

"This is certainly a regional, statewide and even a national concern," said Gateway president Ed Hughes. "The college is really trying to step up to do its part, but we cannot do it all."

Industry leaders are hoping to turn workers such as Mazak machinist Chad Coldiron from Crittenden into examples for younger students. The 34-year-old has worked in manufacturing ever since he graduated from high school, following his brother into the career. Mazak officials say someone in his position can make upwards of $60,000 with overtime in highly challenging and technical work.

"I would recommend this kind of work to anyone," said Coldiron, who has also worked at auto plants and says he has good job security as a skilled plant worker.

Lack of graduates led to tensions, actions

Last fall, a lack of graduate production led to major tensions between Gateway and the area business community, and even between the the Gateway board and the school administration, including Hughes.

What followed was the creation of a business-led coalition to help examine and improve the graduation numbers. That coincided with Gateway's separate study of its performance over the previous five years.

From left, Bobby Lunsford, Mike Hall, and Chris Brewsaugh remove excess sheet metal after being laser cut.

"What we did is put out there how we did and now we can try and move forward and improve," Hughes said.

Still, what everyone agreed upon is that while factors – such as the campus' location in southern Florence and the lack of marketing by the school – caused some of the shortages, the largest obstacle is indeed getting possible students interested in manufacturing as a career.

"You can make upwards of $50,000 pretty quickly after getting out of school, and yet all those kids and their parents still have this perception that its dark and dirty and dangerous," said Dan Janka, president of the North American division of the France-based Fives Group. That company bought and operates the former Cincinnati Milcron plant in Hebron.

"But when you walk through our shop, you can eat off our floor," said Janka, who added that he, too, has an aging workforce, with 55 percent of his 400 workers over the age of 50.

To that end, the coalition, which also includes Tri-Ed and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, is hiring a full-time employee to help market manufacturing to schools, counselors and students.

"We are looking for someone who can work with Gateway and make an impact," Tobergte said.

Low worker numbers not limited to NKY

The lack of qualified manufacturing job candidates is a national issue as well. According to a report released late last week by the Manufacturing Institute, more than 3.5 million new employees will be needed to fill U.S. manufacturing jobs over the next 10 years due to industry growth as well as retirements. But that same report indicated that the current pipeline will only be able to fill 1.5 million of those positions during that span.

"We hear across the board that there are not enough students going into manufacturing training," said AJ Jorgenson, spokeswoman for the institute, which is the research arm of The National Association of Manufacturers, a Washington-based trade group.

The national demographics also trend in line when it comes to the aging manufacturing workforce. Jorgenson said the average age of a manufacturing worker nationally is 56, adding that new employees are needed now and not in 10 years so there can be "an effective transfer of knowledge."

Mike Quatman of Sunman, Indiana, who works for Mazak Corporation, unwraps part of a machine.

Yet Jorgenson said there is hope, citing survey numbers which show that before touring an advanced manufacturing plant, only 43 percent of students thought manufacturing was an exciting career possibility. After such a tour, however, that number jumped up to 80 percent.

Made in USA now part of message

Such efforts are underway locally as well. Gateway held a symposium with about 40 students, their parents and school counselors in Boone County earlier this month. Other manufacturers in Northern Kentucky have had career nights, bringing in kids for pizza.

But Hughes said that he isn't just targeting high school students. Gateway's new veterans' program now has 65 students, for example.

Hughes said that the school has received a $50,000 grant to aid in marketing. They believe an appeal to homegrown patriotism and personal economic stability are good starts.

"This isn't just about how safe and clean it is anymore – this is about the Made in America and made in Northern Kentucky message," Hughes said. "We can show kids they are making cool things and that the opportunities are endless."

As for the outside pressure from the coalition and manufacturing community, Hughes said he welcomes all and any help he can get.

"We are delighted that everyone has responded and we are taking collective action," Hughes said.