Manufacturers and contractors collaborate with vocational schools to draw high school students into a surplus of tech-heavy jobs with promising career paths.

Eric Phillips knows how valuable manufacturing and construction jobs are to a community's success.

As executive director of the Union County Economic Development Partnership, Phillips sees firsthand how his county's 1,600-plus manufacturing companies impact the local economy. Manufacturing jobs pay well and create other jobs. It's estimated that 100 manufacturing jobs generate 57 additional support jobs.

He also can imagine how devastating it would be if companies were unable to fill the county's nearly 44,000 manufacturing jobs as older workers retire. More than 50 percent of the industry's existing workforce in Union County will likely retire in the next 10 years, Phillips and area manufacturers estimate.

"There's a lot of conversation about workforce development-making sure we have the workforce for tomorrow," he says. "It's a critical issue to us."

He and other local leaders have begun to look to area technical schools as potential partners. The high schools, which have a long tradition of graduating students who are seeking to enter the workforce, are eager to assist.

But first, the partners must address some of the challenges career and tech schools face, say those who are working to build relationships between industry and education. The schools need clear directives about what skills businesses want, access to the equipment that manufacturers use, internship opportunities for their students and help attracting students with the right aptitude for the work. Everyone also agrees that something needs to be done about the stigma that has long been associated with vocational education.

"Our career centers are poised to really help out," Phillips says. "We're not there yet."

HELP WANTED

Union County is not alone in worrying about filling jobs. Central Ohio and the rest of the nation all are facing a serious workforce shortage.

In the next five to 10 years, more than one-third of North American manufacturers anticipate they will have a "high level of difficulty" finding skilled workers to fill job openings, according to a 2013 survey organized by the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, an organization comprised of senior executives and industry experts at leading manufacturing, academic and research organizations around the world. Workforce shortages are "the biggest issue facing manufacturers today," says Eric Burkland, president of the Ohio Manufacturers' Association.

Members of the construction industry are also concerned. Half of Ohio companies reported having a "hard time" filling professional and craft worker positions, in a survey by the Associated General Contractors of America released in January. Forty-three percent predict it will become harder to fill jobs.

"One of the most important issues for (general contractors) is the pipeline of skilled workers," says Andrea Ashley, vice president of government relations for
the Central Ohio Associated General Contractors.

The skills needed range from engineering and operating equipment to developing software for robotics in manufacturing and welding, Ashley and Burkland say.

A BUSINESSES PROBLEM

Manufacturers need to play a role in helping fill the workforce shortage, Burkland says. "This problem is the manufacturers' problem. We're the ones that need to solve the problem," he says.

Building connections with educators is a good start, Burkland says. Businesses need to view career schools as their potential partners and help them improve the level of training offered, he adds. Career centers are very receptive to input from business, says Chuck Speelman, superintendent at Tri-Rivers Career Center in Marion. The schools also have the flexibility to develop classes or add certification programs to meet the needs of local employers, he says. "We understand what it means to move at the speed of business," Speelman says.

Instead of donating obsolete equipment to career centers for a tax write-off, businesses need to help them purchase the latest machinery and assist with creating curriculum around how to run it, he adds. That's what's happening at Tri-Rivers. In partnership with Marion Technical School and The Ohio State University at Marion, Tri-Rivers has created the Robotics & Advanced Manufacturing Technology Education Collaborative. The RAMTEC facility offers high school students and adults seeking job training opportunities to learn advanced manufacturing practices, including working with industrial robots.

The lab is so well-equipped several area manufacturers, including the local Whirlpool plant, have been sending employees there for certifications and advanced training. Eight more labs are in the works. They are being funded with a state grant totaling almost $15 million.

Mitsubishi Electric, which specializes in helping plants automate their assembly lines, provided equipment at a hefty discount to Tri-Rivers. The company constantly hears customers lamenting about the lack of skilled workers, says
Ted Hemmelgarn, a distribution sales manager based in Cincinnati. Company leaders saw value in putting its equipment in the hands of students who could later go to work for its customers, he says.

"Now's a good time to be proactive," he says.

Companies also can help by providing opportunities for students to work in their buildings and gain on-the-job experience, adds Kim Wilson, superintendent at Tolles Career & Technical Center in Plain City. When local authorities granted Autotool a tax abatement, company leaders asked to meet with Tolles officials to see if they could support the school in other ways. The company, which has hired several Tolles welding students, now offers internship opportunities.

"For us, even when we lose that potential revenue due to abatements, we still see benefits," Wilson says. "It creates a stronger business community. In the case of Autotool, we were able to develop a strong partnership that has led to internship and employment opportunities for our students. Those relationships have economic benefits for us, our students and the business."

FILLING CLASSROOMS

Businesses aren't the only ones that need to become more open to the potential of career centers. Students and their parents also need to see the value of a technical education, local leaders and educators say. Many families don't realize that today's career tech students need high-level math, science and problem-solving skills, Speelman says. Career tech is no longer an easy alternative to earning a high school diploma, he adds.

"We are not just training for blue collar jobs but also what I call the new 'gray collar' jobs," he says. "They're not white collar jobs, but they're high tech and high pay."

Businesses are working to make middle and high school students more aware of quality job opportunities that begin at career tech schools. Members of the commercial construction industry recently launched www.buildohio.org to promote the industry as a potential career. The website is designed to educate students and their parents about various construction-related jobs and the paths to train for them, says Chris Runyan, president of the Ohio Construction Association. The site touts the number and variety of jobs available in construction and that the average annual salary is $52,000.

"We're getting up to speed on how to reach out and touch the younger generation and promote construction careers," he says.

The exciting thing about many of these careers is that young people can get on-the-job training while in high school and then pursue specialty certifications, an associate's degree or a four-year college degree to enhance their skills, he adds. "It is definitely not the end of their professional training."

Convincing students and their parents that college is not the only path to career success is a challenge, adds Jill Harris, manager of human resources at Corna Kokosing. The Westerville construction company has its own apprenticeship program. She's encouraged by efforts at career schools to align their programs with local community colleges so students can earn college credit while in high school.

"That definitely helps," she says. "Most parents want their students to go to college."

Some schools are creating mobile vans equipped with robotics and other equipment workers would encounter while working in manufacturing or other trades. The plan is to take the labs to sporting events, county fairs and other places that attract families to show them how far vocational education has come, Phillips says.

"We want to show kids that technical degrees can be fun and career tech can be a great opportunity," he says. "We need to change that mentality."

Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.