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Erasing the trades deficit

St. Charles County businesses, organizations seek to strengthen workforce readiness

On Oct. 29, the O’Fallon Chamber of Commerce and the city of O’Fallon’s Economic Development Department collaborated along with the city’s Grow in the ‘O’ committee to host the O’Fallon Industrial Summit.

“As part of the city’s retention efforts and onsite visits with O’Fallon manufacturers, economic development staff had heard a common theme regarding workforce development, specifically a lack of qualified or skilled employees,” said Economic Development Director Mike Hurlbert.

The summit was an attempt to bring O’Fallon manufacturers together to discuss potential solutions for this and any other issues that might be affecting large employers.

This problem is not unique, nor is it new.

As far back as 2009, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasted that the U.S. will need 29 percent more HVACR (heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration) and 21 percent more plumbing technicians, a total of more than 100,000 skilled workers in the job pool by 2014.

And these are just one example of declining interest in the trades. As evidenced by O’Fallon’s summit, today’s manufacturers across the country are living with the reality of too few skilled workers entering the labor pool.

A survey conducted by RIDGID, a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Emerson, also in 2009 revealed that a scant 6 percent of high school students anticipated entering the skilled trades – defined as plumbers, carpenters, electricians, heating, ventilation or air conditioning installers, or repair people.


Preparing students for careers 

One of the underlying causes for the decline in the trades might be well-meaning parents, educators and other influential adults who encourage students to “get a college education.” Most trades do not require a college degree. They do, however, require training – and that is where area schools and employers are stepping up and stepping in.

Troy Pohlman, founder and CEO of Component Bar Products, Inc., an O’Fallon-based manufacturer of precision machined products, had a startling and disturbing revelation a few years ago. Due to retirement and natural attrition, he realized he would be losing approximately 30 percent of his skilled workforce in the next five to 10 years.

Not finding ready solutions to his dilemma, Pohlman decided to take action. Over several years, he visited tech schools, vocational programs and even some high schools to evaluate what training was available, specifically concentrating in St. Charles County and looking at the 18- to 28-year-old target audience.

“What I found was discouraging,” Pohlman said.

But his discovery wasn’t the end of the story. To strengthen the labor force, Pohlman decided to open his own training center for machinists. And, after conducting a pilot program that consisted of a few internship groups, the Midwest Machine Tool Training Center’s 20-week program was born.

MMTTC is due to hold its first class in January 2015 in an 8,000-square-foot center next to the CBP’s campus in O’Fallon.

After completing the 20-week course, trainees will have entry-level skills in metal working studies. Industry business partners, like True Manufacturing Company, Inc., will visit MMTTC monthly.

“A goal is showing students the broad spectrum of career paths to choose from beyond strictly machining. They might pursue sales, quality control, engineering, drafting, or tool and die making after our program,” Pohlman said. “While we cannot guarantee employment following completion of the program, our plan is to show our graduates employment opportunities and that businesses in our area offer jobs in their expertise. Partnerships are crucial.”


Partnering with local schools

St. Charles Community College (SCC) is one such partnership. Through a memorandum of agreement, the college and MMTTC have entered into an arrangement to enhance workforce readiness for a new generation of skilled workers.

Amanda Sizemore, director of workforce development at SCC, welcomes the opportunity to work with industry professionals to meet the needs of area businesses.

Currently, SCC has no degree program in traditional trade careers, but the school is in the process of change.

“It’s important that we stay cutting edge in the industry skill set. This is an area we are exploring for growth,” Sizemore said. “To meet the needs of our community, we are looking at providing degreed programs.”

Although degree programs in the trades do not exist at SCC, the college does offer non-credit courses for welding certification and for certified production technicians. Welding training is available through a partnership with Pike-Lincoln Technical Center, and beginning in 2015, SCC will offer classes for certification and applied science degrees in general technology with an emphasis in welding.

Darrel Keesling, chief operating officer of CBP, who worked alongside Pohlman to develop MMTTC’s accredited program and its curriculum, said: “Our students are coming from the same geographic and demographic pool (as SCC’s). Our vision is for students to start with our course, and if they want a continued education experience in vocational training, the traditional program at SCC would be the next logical step.”

But Pohlman knows that to be truly effective, an introduction to skilled labor’s opportunities has to begin at an even younger age. He would like to see a greater emphasis on educating high school students, introducing them to machining and other skilled labor opportunities through visits to area middle schools and field trips.

“There is a stigma among vocational jobs, like machining, that it is dirty, repetitive, and a mindless job that won’t challenge the individual,” Pohlman said. “We want to show potential machinists that it can be a positive work environment and a great career option.”

For Pohlman, it’s personal.

“Along with my aging machining workforce comes experience, intellectual knowledge, keen problem-solving skills and maturity. Losing those workers and not having machinists to replace them will cause a crisis,” Pohlman said.

Ridgid’s President Fred Pond would agree. When the company released its workforce study in 2009, he was quoted as saying: “The economy hit construction hard, no doubt. However, the realities of an aging infrastructure, urbanization and a mature workforce all remain. When this turns around, and it will, demand for skilled labor will be significant.”


Looking toward the future

Slowly, the economy is improving.

According to figures compiled by the Home Builders Association of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri, St. Charles County continued to lead the Missouri portion of the St. Louis region in single-family and multiple-family housing permits issued for new construction through August of 2014. County officials say they are optimistic that the housing industry will continue to recover from the recession.

As that growth continues, so will the need for skilled laborers. Working together, organizations such as SCC, the O’Fallon Chamber of Commerce, O’Fallon Economic Development Department and manufacturers such as Component Bar are looking to meet that need – and do so in a timely fashion.

“We have an entire generation of Millennials (age 18 to 33), who have been raised in an instant gratification society – microwave ovens, fast food, smartphones, access to any topic at their fingertips through the Internet. It is creating a society of young people who want immediate results and want the fruits of their labor immediately rewarded,” said Component Bar employee Joe Kemper, who will be MMTTC’s program instructor.

Keesling and Pohlman agree, but while they believe that people are hired for their skill sets, they are fired for their behaviors.

“Soft skills, like shaking hands and looking someone in the eye, are missing in this generation,” Pohlman said.

He also noted that young adults want to start at a higher pay scale than the industry average, which can produce unrealistic expectations. Still, he is hopeful that keeping class sizes small and addressing the issues that might hinder  career satisfaction and performance will be a first step in helping to reduce the shortage of skilled labor in St. Charles County.

“We need to turn this around. I hope we are on the right path to do just that,” Pohlman said.

As for the summit, organizers saw it as a way to create “a stronger voice and enhanced relationships for local businesses.”  Leaders are hoping the summit will become a bi-annual event.


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