At Metal Flow in Holland, company officials wish they could clone workers like Kyle Hubers.
Hubers grew up in a family where his dad fixed cars, did woodworking – and passed along a love of labor with his hands to his son. Hubers earned a two-year degree in manufacturing at Ferris State University and joined Metal Flow full time in 2008 as an apprentice.
By 2012, Hubers had his journeyman toolmaker card and today runs a precision auto parts machine that demands both trigonometry and tolerances to the thousandths of an inch.
“I've always been a hands-on type of person,” said Hubers, 28, who is paid $20 an hour, with potential to earn much more. “It's right up my alley. I get to go to work and build something every day.”
Despite that, Metal Flow Chairman Leslie Brown said good-paying jobs like tool maker, set-up technician and die setter often go begging at the firm.
“Our work is highly technical and we struggle to fill our positions,” Brown said. “We need technical individuals, good collaborators and people who like to work with their hands. We had such a strong push for everyone to get a college education. Not everybody is inclined to go that way and during that time we dropped a lot of shop classes.”
Metal Flow hardly stands alone. State officials peg the labor shortage in Michigan at more than 75,000 workers. That is based on the number of unfilled jobs on the state’s jobs web site, a figure that includes thousands of openings in advanced manufacturing, healthcare and engineering.
As some see it, Michigan is in a race with other states to see who adapts best to a changing, higher-skilled employment landscape.
“It will certainly be important that a sufficient labor supply exists in the industries and occupations that are going to be in demand in this economy,” said Bruce Weaver, an economic analyst with the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget. “It means our skilled workforce will need to continue to expand in order for us to continue to fill jobs going forward.”
Begging for labor skills
Last month, Gov. Rick Snyder singled out the skilled labor shortage at the Mackinac Policy Conference as a critical challenge for Michigan.
“The place that does this the best over the next few years will have a strategic economic advantage,” he said.
Snyder cited programs designed to fix the problem, including the Michigan Advanced Technician Training program, where southeast Michigan employers pay tuition for three years for employees who rotate between work and getting an advanced associate's degree.
In West Michigan, manufacturers pay workers to earn a one- or two-year degree in manufacturing at Grand Rapids Community College while they earn on the job as apprentices.
But economists say this talent gap will not be bridged with any one program, as Michigan climbs out of a deep recession that cost an estimated 800,000 jobs. With jobs growing and unemployment falling from 14.2 percent in August 2009 to 7.4 percent in April, there are fewer workers with the right skills vying for more jobs.
A similar story is playing out on the national scene, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated there were 4.5 million job openings in April.
That included 94,000 in construction, 272,000 in manufacturing, more than 600,000 each in health care and food service and more than 800,000 in business and professional services.
Weaver, the state analyst, said the shortage is also driven by an aging work force, as Baby Boomer workers retire and too few qualified candidates line up to replace them.
Among other jobs that are open or expected to be in demand in years ahead:
Engineer: A search on Pure Michigan Talent Connect, the state's job search site, found more than 4,500 openings for engineers earlier this month. Among firms looking for engineers is Elektrobit, a global software firm focused on the automotive and wireless industry. It maintains a technical center in suburban Detroit and has job openings for software engineers, test engineers and engineering project managers. “It’s a challenge for us right now. We do have a gap with regard to talent,” said Damian Barnett, director of automotive software for the Farmington Hills operation. Barnett speculates that the state lost engineers to other states during the recession. “A lot of talent has left Michigan,” he said.
Truck driver: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, national demand for truck drivers is projected to rise by 330,000 jobs by 2020. In 2012, it calculated there were 1.6 million tractor-trailer and heavy-truck drivers in the United States, including 48,220 in Michigan. In 2013, trucking firms across the state reported a shortage of truck drivers. Ottawa County-based Luther Logistics reported that applications were down from four or five a week to two a month. E.L. Hollingsworth and Co., a freight company based near Flint, estimated it could hire 50 extra drivers if more qualified candidates would apply.
Construction worker: According to an Associated General Contractors of America survey released earlier this year, 86 percent of companies plan to start hiring this year, compared to 78 percent in 2013. More than 60 percent of firms reported they could not fill key professional and craft positions. According to state calculations, online ads in Michigan for construction job openings grew by 25 percent, from 10,600 jobs in April 2013 to 11,650 in April.
Nurse: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of needed nurses will grow from 2.74 million in 2010 to 3.45 million in 2020, as the population ages and health care needs rise. But a 2010 survey by the Okemos-based Michigan Center for Nursing predicts the nursing workforce in Michigan will soon lose large numbers to retirement, with more than a third of registered nurses age 55 or older and 43 percent of licensed practical nurses 55 or older. The state projects a 21 percent rise in demand for registered nurses and 20 percent for licensed practical nurses by 2018.
In Grand Rapids, nonprofit economic growth agency Talent 2025 projects the job market in a 13-county West Michigan region will demand 38,000 additional workers with four-year college degrees by 2025. It projects a decline of 50,000 jobs by then for workers with less than a high school diploma.
“This is just a fundamental shift for the state as technology drives production and success,” said Talent 2025 Director Kevin Stotts.
Doing what schools aren’t
In West Michigan, Autocam Corp. has been at this game longer than most. Sale of the Kentwood-based firm was announced July 21 to Tennessee-based NN Inc. in a deal worth $300 million. The transaction is expected to close in the third quarter.
More than two decades ago, it began an in-house training program to teach workers to operate specialized machine tools used in building precision components for the automotive industry. About 20 years ago, the firm launched a structured apprentice program to fill a void of qualified workers.
Autocam President John Kennedy – who will become the largest shareholder of NN – pins part of the talent gap on failure of K-12 school districts to prepare students not bound for college for the demands of today's work force. Just one fourth of high school graduates who apply to Autocam for apprenticeship positions successfully complete a basic skills test that includes arithmetic, reading, measurement and problem solving.
“I think we are missing the boat,” he said.
In 2012, Autocam established the Advanced Manufacturing Program in collaboration with Grand Rapids Community College to maintain a better pipeline of manufacturing talent. Applicants accepted into the program start at Autocam at $13 an hour while they attend classes for a two-year program paid in full by the firm. Classes include material science, industrial graphics and trigonometry as well as English.
When they complete school and 8,000 hours on the job, machinists earn at least $17.50 an hour at a plant where the average annual income for an hourly worker exceeds $50,000. Autocam also picks up the tab if they want to earn a four-year degree in fields like engineering.
The program has since been expanded to include several other West Michigan employers, including Steelcase Corp. and Herman Miller Inc.
“Some our best engineers and certainly technicians have come out of that program,” Kennedy said.
Even so, the firm has at least 20 machinist job openings at its Kentwood plant it could fill today if qualified candidates walked through the door.
Autocam employs about 700 people at seven plants in North America and another 800 at factories in Europe, South America and Asia, including China.
Kennedy said he has no difficulty finding qualified workers for his operation in China.
“I don't have trouble recruiting advanced manufacturing people in China. We need to get together as a community to see how we can get to these kids earlier.”