Article by Rich Rovito, WMEP Industry Reporter

The struggle by manufacturers throughout the state to find qualified job seekers to fill open position remains a hot topic as evidenced by the packed sessions at the recent Manufacturing Matters! Conference that addressed the skilled labor shortage facing the industrial sector.

I had the honor of moderating one of the sessions, which featured presenters Dan Ariens, chief executive officer of Brillion-based Ariens Co., and Jeff Clark, president and CEO of Waukesha® Metal Products, which has its headquarters in Sussex.

One of the topics creating a stir at the conference centered around a report that University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researcher Marc Levine issued a few days earlier that concluded that the manufacturing skills gap is nothing more than a mere myth.

Dan AriensWhen I questioned Ariens and Clark about the report, they simultaneously shook their heads in what I can only describe as disbelief and perhaps even frustration, given the efforts their companies have made in attempting to tackle the issue.

They both dismissed the report as “total garbage.” Clark said he’s surprised by these studies mainly because they often are compiled without any input from manufacturers. He argued that he had first-hand evidence of his company’s struggle to fill open jobs. Ariens echoed the sentiments expressed by Clark.

To be fair to Levine, he acknowledged in follow up comments following the release of his report that his detractors argued that his report should have been based on interviews with Wisconsin employers. He contends that doing so is precisely the problem with existing accounts of a skills gap in Wisconsin. Reports based on anecdotal evidence from employers about their difficulty in finding skilled works fail to provide an analysis of whether such reported difficulty reflects unwillingness to pay market wages, inadequate business investment in training or inefficiencies in employer hiring practices.

Jeff ClarkLevine argues that statistical evidence shows that there is a jobs gap in Wisconsin, not a skills gap.

Ariens’ efforts in recruiting and training workers to fill available jobs have been well documented, but it’s worth reiterating in light of Levine’s report. The company, which makes products such as snow blowers and lawn mowing equipment, has made a major investment toward the creation of the Ariens Technology and Engineering Center at Brillion High School, a partnership that began six years ago.

As part of the initiative, Ariens places its manufacturing and engineering staff into the classroom several times a year. The company also brings Brillion school students to its manufacturing plant, where they engage in live product development processes. The center also has worked to change the attitude and mindset of high school students when it comes to careers in manufacturing.

Since the program began, students and parents alike have developed a more energized attitude toward manufacturing, Ariens said. It’s also eased what Ariens argues is a real skills gap issue.

Read what Jim Morgan, president of the WMC Foundation had to say about the Levine paper in the Milwaukee Business Journal

Clark, who is an appointee to the Governor’s College and Workforce Readiness, said his company also has invested in training initiatives in order to address the skills gap and its set to do even more.

At the same time, the company has been adding jobs and was featured in the inaugural ranking of Inc.’s Hire Power Awards, recognizing private businesses that have generated the most jobs from 2008 to 2011. During that period, the metal forming manufacturer created 45 jobs, placing it No. 5 among the top private business job creators in Wisconsin. Although Waukesha Metal Products has been successful in creating jobs, finding candidates to fill the positions has been difficult at times, Clark admitted.

In another session addressing the skills gap, Mary Isbister, president of Mequon metal fabricator GenMet Corp.  and Dawn Tabat, chief operating officer at town of Genesee-based generator manufacturer Generac Holdings Inc., said the time is right for a “revolution” in the manufacturing sector.

Although some manufacturers have found success in programs involving high schools students, Tabat and Isbister, who also serves as chairwoman of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s board of directors, argued that efforts to draw students into manufacturing careers need to begin very early on in the educational process, even as soon as elementary school.