By Rich Rovito

It’s a topic that just won’t go away. Manufacturers continue to voice concern about a skills gap that they claim has been plaguing the industrial sector for years. Companies are quick to blame the perceived gap as a primary cause for their struggle to fill open jobs, even during periods of high unemployment.

But is a skills gap really to blame? Does a gap even exist? It all depends on who is doing the talking.

One thing is certain. The topic is still top of mind among manufacturing leaders and will be the subject of a panel discussion at the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s Manufacturing Matters! Conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Milwaukee on Feb. 27.

The panel will feature a pair of manufacturing executives, Eric Isbister and Mike Reader, who are convinced that the skills gap is real and a highly troublesome concern for their particular companies as well as the industrial sector at large. A third panelist, Marc Levine, senior fellow and the founding director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development, has called into question the notion of a manufacturing skills gap and has offered his own research in support of his stance.

The discussion is sure to ignite some heated debate.

Isbister, chief executive officer of GenMet Corp., a Mequon-based custom metal fabricator that he co-owns with his wife, Mary, takes issue with those who doubt the existence of a manufacturing skills gap.

Isbister claims that GenMet has lost work because of a shortage of employees.

“Our ability to grow our business depends on us getting people,” Isbister said.

In early 2013, Levine issued a research paper entitled: “The Skills Gap and Unemployment in Wisconsin: Separating Fact from Fiction.” In it, he states that a “gap” exists between companies that want to secure cheap labor and workers who are seeking jobs that will pay them enough to adequately support their families.

Isbister said he’s worked relentlessly to attract workers to GenMet, including opening the facility to scores of high school students during Manufacturing Month last October.

“The students’ eyes were bugging out of their heads,” Isbister said. “They saw that making stuff is cool.”

GenMet mainly is in need of more welders, which would help eliminate bottlenecks in the company’s production process,” he said.  “If I had more welders, then I’d have faster lead times. That’s where the skills gap comes in.”

Isbister takes issue with Levine’s contention that manufacturers like GenMet aren’t offering competitive wages. Levine, however, claims that GenMet’s struggle to find qualified employees is more of a wage gap, not a skills gap.

“I admit that I’m not all knowing when it comes to what creates the skills gap,” Isbister said. “But what sets my blood boiling is that (Levine) is hurting a passion of mine. With one swipe of his pen, he has undermined our work.”

Isbister claimes that GenMet “pays for performance” and insists that the wages paid to workers with the desired skills are family-supporting.

Reader, president of Precision Plus, an Elkhorn contract manufacturer of precision machined components that has 62 employees, said the growth of his company also has been hindered by a lack of qualified employees.

“Our greatest constraint to ongoing growth is people,” Reader said.

Reader called the assertions made by Levine “absolutely absurd.” He complained that Levine didn’t interview manufacturers as part of his research.

Levine has repeatedly defended his research and said that how a manufacturer recruits and trains employees may be to blame for the failure to fill open positions.

“Are expectations too high and are you investing enough in training and recruiting. Some of the folks that are the loudest complainants about a skills gap are not only paying non-competitive wages but have outsourced their human resources and recruiting operations,” Levine said. “Maybe that’s part of the issue, particularly from small manufacturers who can’t afford a full-time staff for recruiting.”

Levine argued that blaming the problem on a skills gap is nothing more than a “fallback” position.

“What is a real skills gap? I’m pretty sure that with some of the highly specialized positions there may be a skills gap,” Levine said.

A large number of jobs at Precision Plus pay “very, very good wages,” Reader said, adding that the work is challenging and varied.

“This isn’t Henry Ford’s assembly line,” Reader said. “It’s high-tech.”

Manufacturers continue to struggle to overcome outdated perceptions about manufacturing, including the long-held belief that those who work in the industry do so because they didn’t excel in school, he said.

“There are great career opportunities,” Reader said.

He has brought area teachers and school administrators into the plant to get a glimpse of the operations of Precision Plus. Last year, the company launched a summer internship program for high school students as a means of exposing young people to careers in manufacturing.

“We don’t just stick these kids in a corner,” he said. “By the end of the summer, they were running half million dollar pieces of equipment.”

Interest in the internship program has been strong, Reader said.

“Even if they don’t come back to work here, they’ve helped us become better,” he said. “If we provide them with a positive experience they will become ambassadors.”

In September, Precision Plus hired Barry Butters as director of education and training, yet another move aimed at addressing the skills gap, Reader said.

Butters has worked in the education field for 27 years teaching mathematics and engineering courses as well as serving as a high school principal.

Butters’ duties at Precision Plus include new employee training for those with no machining experience; cross-training of existing employees; developing educational platforms for various CNC machines and measuring tools; and acting as an ambassador for the manufacturing sector.

Space at the Precision Plus facility has been redesigned to serve as a classroom to conduct training.

Precision Plus wouldn’t be investing in such extensive training initiatives if a skills gap didn’t exist, Reader insisted.

“This is costing us a lot of money,” Reader said. “If this wasn’t a concern, I’d be spending our money elsewhere.”

Levine expects a lively discussion and expressed confidence that some sort of consensus on the issue can be reached.

“I don’t know if there will be a meeting of the minds, but I hope there’s at least an understanding of where people are coming from.”