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Manufacturing ‘alive and well’ in St. Charles County, according to local officials

Things are still being made in St. Charles County – lots of things, which is generating more and more jobs.

That’s according to county officials who are disputing the notion that local manufacturing has become a dying art and hasn’t disappeared with the likes of 20 cents a gallon gasoline or the corner soda shop.

“For the last two months, we’ve had a nine-word message that we’ve been getting out around the community and actually to a state board, and that is ‘Manufacturing is alive and well in St. Charles County,’” said Scott Drachnik, director of the county’s department of workforce and business development.

Drachnik made the comments at the County Council June 26 meeting where he briefed councilmembers on the status of manufacturing in the county. “Most people don’t realize that manufacturing in St. Charles County employs the largest number of folks and the highest wages in our area,” he said.

Drachnik said that, according to 2015 data, $1.01 billion in wages annually are paid out to manufacturing workers from this area and figures for 2016 are expected to be similar. Those statistics were gathered by the county. Below manufacturing, the next areas include $603 million annually in wages for local government and public education, $602 million for healthcare and social assistance, $550 million for retail trade and $448 million for information technology.

More than 16,000 county residents were estimated to have been working in manufacturing in 2016, which is a larger number than a decade ago, Drachnik said. In fact, it is estimated that there were 12,195 manufacturing jobs in the county in 2004. “So all the talk about plants closing up and moving south of the border or overseas is not exactly what’s been happening in our part of the community,” he said.

The GM Assembly Plant in Wentzville might be the first business that comes to mind when talking manufacturing in St. Charles County, but it is only one of many local companies producing goods and hiring technical workers. [GM Authority photo]

One problem for companies is finding the right hires. “Almost every one of them [surveyed employers] was saying we can’t find enough people,” he said.

In late 2016, the manufacturing task force of the county’s Workforce Development Board reached out to 300 manufacturers in the community with a 12-question survey. Sixty companies large and small responded – 37 percent of those companies had between five and 24 employees, 27 percent had more than 100 employees, and 10 percent had more than 500 employees.

The categories of businesses represented in the survey included chemical, computer, electronics, fabricated metal, machinery, plastics and rubber, transportation and more. “We had the mom and pop shops all the way up to the global giants,” Drachnik said.

Drachnik said the companies who responded have been hiring the last 24 months and expect to continue hiring. Sixty-two percent of businesses surveyed plan on hiring “direct full-time employees with benefits in the next 24 months,” he said.

Twenty-one to 30 percent said they are looking for workers trained in such skills as blueprint reading, electrical forklift and machine maintenance; 11 to 20 percent are looking for workers with training in AutoCAD, welding, manual mill operation and HVAC; and 10 percent want workers trained in logistics, shipping and receiving, manual lathe operations, hydraulics, pneumatics and motor controls.

Other positions that companies want to fill include shipping, welding, quality assurance, assembly and production, and sales.

Survey respondents rated the skills of new hires and applicants giving two stars or slightly above on a five-star scale when asked about the ability of new workers to understand written and graphic information, technical skills related to the job, general computer skills, teamwork, willingness to learn, ability to interact with others and work ethic. Two to three stars also were given to applicants hired with general knowledge about business or industry and general writing skills.

The goal would be to see those ratings rise.

Some of the cited barriers to hiring included government policies and regulations, lack of access to child care and transportation. But other identified barriers included a shortage of available training programs and a shortage of workers with adequate knowledge or skills.

The survey results – along with a series of meetings with business and educational leaders from the middle of last year until spring 2017 – resulted in a number of recommendations by the task force, Drachnik said. Some of those recommendations include:

  • Better alignment and improvements to technical training to the real-world needs of manufacturers with partnerships and communications between businesses, educational leaders and training providers
  • Promoting grant-funded or business-sponsored technical training programs
  • Supporting job-shadowing, internships, work-study programs, apprenticeships and college credit transfer as part of technical training in high school and post-secondary institutions
  • Promoting technical training programs in middle, high and post-secondary schools
  • Helping school superintendents, principals, guidance counselors and other education decision-makers to understand and appreciate training beyond encouraging every student to pursue bachelor’s degree; that includes encouraging local colleges and universities expand technical training
  • Encouraging stronger relationship between businesses and manufacturers through meetings, on-site tours and awards.

Improving educational training has been ongoing in the county even before the survey. The county is participating in a new, national program that places high school students in contact with local businesses. The Center for Advanced Professional Studies [CAPS] allows students to receive college credit for coursework completed while in high school and exposes students to engineering, entrepreneurship and business.

Drachnik said St. Charles Community College’s recent acquisition of the Barat Academy building in Dardenne Prairie also may provide more space for technical education offerings such as logistics, welding and an agribusiness program. Other private technical schools also are expanding their courses, he said.

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