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Senator listens to manufacturer's concerns about skills gap, difficulty in filling high tech positions


PLOVER, Wis. (WSAU) --  A U.S Senator got a close look at how Wisconsin manufacturers are trying to deal with the skills gap. Senator Tammy Baldwin visited Pointe Precision in Plover Monday, which is a high technology machine shop that manufactures components for the aerospace and other industries.

The Workforce Investment Act is under consideration for reauthorization, and Baldwin is listening to businesses to find out how to improve the legislation. “This is an important piece of legislation when there are displacements in our economy, when we see factories close, when we see factories offshored, and we need to engage in helping people make career (choices), update their skills, and find employment matches in their home communities, ideally, when that can happen.”

Under the present Workforce Investment Act, dollars are set aside for helping train new workers and also to retrain displaced workers from businesses that have closed. Baldwin says employers tell her there is also a need to help train existing entry level workers to higher skill levels so they may advance. “What I heard today really underscores the importance of this, being able to use some of the funding in the Workforce Investment Act to help entry level workers in manufacturing settings, and other settings for that matter, be able to upgrade their skills so that this can be a career long commitment to a company if they desire.”

One of the problems with the skills gap is that there are not enough people entering the manufacturing fields. Another problem is the ability of technical schools to bring new workers up to the high-tech levels needed by modern manufacturers. “Often times, companies are investing literally hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in a particular piece of equipment. The technical colleges can’t keep up with that, and so they’re often lagging behind in terms of teaching people on the precise pieces of equipment that they’re going to have to operate in the field.”

Pointe Precision CEO and Mid-State Technical College Board Member Joe Kinsella says his business relies on the schools to teach the basics, but they often train people to specific machines on site. “It’s difficult for outside sources to purchase the kind of capital equipment that they need to do that kind of training, so as long as we can get the primary bases covered, the inspection side of it, the understanding of the drawings and how the equipment runs, we’re certainly happy to fill that other void within our own company because we have the wherewithal to do that.”

Kinsella says their efforts to recruit future manufacturing workers begins in the 8th grade, as they bring in local students to show them what a manufacturing career offers. We take them on the shop floor and we show them how the parts are manufactured. Then we bring them back in and hopefully, try to put together the whole package for them, to try to get them to understand that what they may hear or may understand about manufacturing is that it isn’t a dimly-lit building and a dirty facility, and that there are opportunities for them rather than pursuing a four year degree.”

Kinsella says another problem for manufacturers is the growing number of upcoming retirements of these highly skilled operators. “We’ve put together a spreadsheet that shows the age of our folks and when they expect to retire, so we can begin a planning process to backfill those needs. However, having said that, it’s not as easy to go out and find the students that are going into those trades.”

With the demand for high tech manufacturing jobs growing, the number of retired machinists leaving the workforce, and the number of students below the market demand, Kinsella says he encourages experienced and young people looking for a new career to consider manufacturing. “I would absolutely encourage people to look at manufacturing. Manufacturing is going to be here for the long haul, and it’s a good job. It’s a good paying job and the benefits are very good, and I think people should really take a look at focusing on that.”

Senator Baldwin says the Workforce Investment Act could reach the Senate floor this fall for discussion and a possible vote. She says that could help train new workers and help many veterans and the 5,300 workers that have been displaced in central Wisconsin over the past eighteen months.