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Manufacturers gather in Normal to seek answers to the worker shortage

Worker welding
Jeff Smudde
In this file photo, a Brandt Industries employee works a welding machine.

Morton Industries needs welders. Steve Stewart, the company's director of people and culture, said his company could hire 40 welders today, if it could only find them.

Stewart said the company has 100 open positions with a staff of less than 700. Morton Industries makes metal tubes for construction, mining, and agriculture equipment.

To find more workers, Stewart said the company has learned to be more flexible. He said Morton Industries now pays for on-the-job training and it's seeking more part-timers to fill the gaps.

“Maybe you are at home looking (for a second income) and thinking I’d like to do something in the evening,” Stewart said. “So, if you want to work four hours and come to work at Morton Industries we’d love to come chat with you.”

Presenters seated on stage at conference
Eric Stock
Dozens of employers from across Illinois took part in a manufacturing workforce summit at Illinois State University on Thursday.

One year after much of the economy reopened and expanded jobless benefits ran out, many manufacturers still can't find enough workers. Business leaders from across the state are trying to figure out how to rebuild and retrain the post-pandemic workforce.

Morton Industries was one of dozens of employers who took part in a manufacturing workforce summit at Illinois State University.

Sarah Hartwick is vice president of education and workforce policy for the Illinois Manufacturers Association. That's one of the groups that hosted the conference. Hartwick noted the lack of manufacturing workers is a nationwide problem with close to 1 million unfilled jobs.

Hartwick acknowledged the worker shortage has hurt nearly all industries, but said the problem is worse for builders and makers because of a skills gap.

Hartwick said a new state law should help that by expanding career and technical education in schools, but other academic requirements, such as for foreign languages, could lessen the benefit.

“While the (Illinois) State Board of Education is bragging about increasing enrollment in CTE (career and technical education) courses which is amazing, at the same time was are going to start seeing a squeeze-out because of the those changes to the high school graduation requirements,” Hartwick said.

Sarah Hartwig
Illinois Manufacturers Association
Sarah Hartwick

IMA toured the state last fall to ask employers, educators, and others why manufacturing jobs are so hard to fill. Several common themes emerged; many prospective workers lack basic skills, workers are retiring in droves and there's not enough interest in manufacturing careers across many demographics.

Hartwick said computer or robotics-based production jobs have seen more interest, but the stereotypes some have about manufacturing work is a setback.

“We’ve had generations assume that manufacturing is dark, dirty and dangerous and it’s not,” Hartwick said. “It’s opening your facilities up and show those kids and those parents and those communities what it looks like to be on a manufacturing floor today; it’s clean, it’s sustainable, it’s diverse, it’s high tech.”

While manufacturing jobs are changing faster than the workforce may realize, employers also need to keep up with workforce culture.

“One of the things the pandemic has done for most employers in general is force them out of their traditional way of thinking,” Brenda Bleichner, marketing and communications manager for Hardin Industries in the Marshall County town of Lacon. The company makes enclosures for generators.

Bleichner said manufacturing companies need to start recruiting sooner.

“It used to be we want to talk to kids that are going into trade programs at the college level and what I am hearing today is that we’re starting conversations as early as middle school, sixth grade,” Bleichner said.

Hartwick said employers also have to consider the changing needs of people who reenter the workforce. Those desires go beyond pay and benefits.

“Childcare needs, they are leading with their heart and their head and it’s just different priorities with the workforce with those individuals who are looking to reenter the workforce,” Hartwick said.

Hartwick also encourages employers to seek people who typically don't end up at manufacturing plants; women, people of color, veterans and people seeking a second chance after a criminal conviction.

Kara Demirjian Huss is vice president and global marketing director for TCCI Manufacturing in Decatur. The company makes compressors for trucking, construction, agriculture vehicles, and equipment. Huss said for too long, human resources and marketing departments have operated in silos. She said companies should use their marketing expertise to better attract workers.

“Being able to use a strategy that integrates both our brand strategy of our culture, of our company, our value pillars as well as identification of our needs in our workforce arena,” Huss said.

Huss said employee marketing goes beyond traditional job boards. She said companies should market through social media and focus on specific locations.

Huss said recruitment goes hand-in-hand with retention. She said workers need training, leadership and mentorship programs, and opportunities to grow in a career.

Huss said employers must also engage with schools including high schools and community colleges to provide entry level training and establish a worker pipeline. That’s something State Farm Insurance and electric-vehicle maker Rivian and other employers have done in McLean County.

Last year, Illinois invested $15 million in manufacturing training academies downstate.

Corrected: June 10, 2022 at 11:41 AM CDT
This story has been corrected as Sarah Hartwick with IMA was misidentified.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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