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PresicionPlus President Michael Reader outlines for congressional staffers his company's workforce needs and how a partnership with Gateway Technical College is helping to address them. (Photos: Matthew Dembicki)

When Michael Reader opened a new 45,0000-square-foot facility for his family-owned precision manufacturing company in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, in 2000, he fully expected to see a line of job applicants outside his door. That didn’t happen.

That surprised the president of PrecisionPlus, which makes precision pins, screws, shafts, gears, spools and other components — ranging in size from a fraction of a dime to no larger than 2.5 inches — used in the aerospace, defense, healthcare and other industries.

“Why aren’t people showing up at my doorstep banging on the door for a career?” he said during a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday held by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) that highlighted community college and business partnerships on workforce development.

Stuck in a myth

Part of the reason, Reader said, is that manufacturing is still bogged down by old manufacturing stereotypes of being dirty, bleak and dangerous places to work that offer low-wage, dead-end jobs. At PrecisionPlus, the manufacturing floor is clean, bright, air-conditioned and organized with machines that are operated by computers.

But how to convey that to the community? Reader reached out to local leaders, including Bryan Albrecht, president of Gateway Technical College, to ask what they would do to help break this roadblock. Reader recalls Albrecht listened and turned the question around: “What can you do to help?”

AACC President Walter G. Bumphus opens the congressional briefing on Thursday.

Reader realized he needed to step up for the survival of his business. The company reached out to local schools, providing facility tours for school counselors and math and science teachers, apprenticeships and summer experiences for high school students, and externships for teachers. Last year, the company opened a new Reader Precision Machining and Manufacturing Center at Gateway Tech and provided the modern manufacturing equipment that students need to prepare for advanced manufacturing jobs.

Reader became an unofficial spokesman for the cause, talking about the challenges of recruiting talented employees by making pitches at industry meetings, such as the American Gear Manufacturers and American Bearing Manufacturers Association annual meetings where he encouraged employers to get more involved in outreach.

On Saturday, PrecisionPlus again will hold an open house as part of national Manufacturing Day, where participating manufacturers across the country open their doors to let the community see what they do in an effort to, in part, break the stereotype.

“Incent partnerships like these,” said Reader, whose experience was among the partnerships featured in a new AACC report, “Community Colleges: Addressing the Skills Gap.”

A good ROI

Reader also noted that CTE careers are good financial choices. Too often, students think they just need a four-year degree — in any area — to get a good-paying job, but later cannot find a job and have substantial postsecondary debt.

“That’s not a good model,” he said, adding that some of his employees have moved up the ranks at his company and now earn $100,000 annually.

There are currently more than 6 million available jobs in the U.S., most of which require some postsecondary education, federal data show. Nearly 90 percent of certificates and half of associate degrees awarded at community colleges are in career and technical education, according to an AACC analysis of federal data.

Utility works needed

PrecisonPlus is not unique in its experience. Many companies that depend on the career and technical trades are struggling to find skilled workers.

John Skory, president of The Illuminating Company in Ohio, said at the briefing that his utility company, which serves 800,000 customers, faces challenges in finding enough qualified employees, especially as experienced baby boomer workers retire.

(From left) AACC’s David Baime, Tri-C President Alex Johnson and John Skory, president of The Illuminating Company

To ensure it had a pipeline of employees, the company teamed with Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in 2015 on the Power Systems Institute, a two-year program that combines hands-on utility skills training at a utility facility with technical coursework taught in a Tri-C classroom. Program graduates earn an associate degree with a focus on electric power utility technology.

The company also holds career information stations at the college to reach students and parents, highlighting that the average starting salary in the field is $65,000 a year, with benefits.

“It has to be a partnership,” said Skory, who is a Tri-C alumnus.

The college also has a “Board of Visitors,” which comprises 38 business and civic leaders, that advises on programs and skills for workforce needs facing northeast Ohio.

Aerospace industry partners

Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) also has forged stronger ties with area businesses, especially in aerospace in developing the Utah Aerospace Pathways Program with companies such as Boeing, Hexcel, Janicki and Harris. Since it started in 2015, nearly 200 adult and high school students have finished the program and continued on to postsecondary education or jobs, said SLCC President Deneece Huftalin. The college has also launched a new diesel technology pathway program for high school students and a medical innovation pathway focused on underemployed adults.

Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin (left) talks after the briefing with a attendee.

To encourage potential employees to explore careers in the industry, Huftalin said the college and its partnering businesses brought high school teachers, counselors, students and parents to their facilities for a firsthand look at what those jobs.

“It lightens up the room” for educators when they see math and science in action at these facilities in jobs that require operating robotics, Huftalin said.

The program also provides paid internships, and companies often provide tuition reimbursement for employees.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.