Jacksonville Business Journal: Manufacturing Manufacturers — What Local Companies are Doing to Create the Workforce of the Future

Link to article: https://www.bizjournals.com/jacksonville/news/2017/11/07/manufacturing-manufacturers-what-local-companies.html

For students in Florida State College at Jacksonville’s advanced manufacturing program, graduating can be a problem — not because they’re having trouble with the academics, but because they’re getting hired before they even complete their courses. In the past two years, the need for workers in the Jacksonville manufacturing industry has been so dire that nearly 35 percent to 40 percent of the time, area manufacturers have hired FSCJ students before they graduate and without completing all their certifications in the program.  “Industry is hiring them out faster than we can get them,” said Gary Killam, dean of industry at FSCJ. Finding new workers for manufacturers is an industry-wide problem: Just 29 percent of the manufacturing workforce is younger than 35, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the 24 percent of the workforce older than 55 is quickly reaching retirement age. 

With a lack of young people entering manufacturing, the existing workforce retiring and the need for technical skills increasing, manufacturers on the First Coast — and just about everywhere else — are having difficulties staffing their facilities with qualified candidates.

With these issues at hand, local manufacturers aren’t sitting back. They’re taking action, finding innovative ways to grow and groom their own workforce. 

The Challenge

A 2016 Florida Makes study of the First Coast manufacturing workforce found the unemployment rate was 4.3 percent, below the 5 percent rate considered full employment. The tight labor market is a sign of a skilled worker shortage — with the silver lining for workers being a potential increase in wages. 

“The No. 1 issue with manufacturers is the workforce,” said Lake Ray, president of the First Coast Manufacturers Association, adding that “almost all” manufacturers in Jacksonville are affected by the skills gap. “The second part of that is that in our regional area, in the next 10 years, 50 percent of the workforce will be retired. That is a huge, troubling issue.”

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While not all area manufacturers have skills gap issues, many have particular positions they consistently have trouble filling:

At Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Jacksonville brewery, finding technical trades, mechanics and electricians often take more time than for other positions. Johnson & Johnson Vision Care has a similar struggle in finding technicians to work in its facility.

At the Metal Container Corp. aluminum bottle plant, finding workers on the electrical side of the operation proves difficult. More than 40 percent of those they hire come from more than 50 miles away from the facility on Ellis Road.

While Gerdau S.A. doesn’t lack for four-year degree engineers, people to fill positions that require less education — like welders, machinists, fabricators, electricians and mechanics — are tough to find in Jacksonville.

And Urban Mining, described as a tech and manufacturing hybrid company, has trouble finding lower-level computer technicians.

Part of the reason for these manufacturers having trouble finding skilled workers is because Jacksonville isn’t a hub for manufacturing. 

“We don’t have a workforce just available and prepared to take the challenge that manufacturers here need,” said Carlos Zanoelo, vice president and general manager at Gerdau’s Jacksonville mill. “What happens nowadays is we take from each other, and this is like a short blanket: You cover one side but don’t cover another side. You have to make the blanket longer or bigger.”

To make that blanket bigger, Jacksonville’s manufacturing industry is actively looking for ways to close the skills gap. Those in the industry are educating high schoolers on the opportunities in manufacturing, tapping into the veteran population and training workers already in the field. 

Closing the skills gap won’t be easy, but solving the problem is crucial in drawing manufacturers to the First Coast – and keeping established ones in town. 

“As a regional area, the better off we are at having a good talent pool, the more we can attract other manufacturers,” Ray said.

Engaging Young People

Attracting young people into the field is key in growing the workforce and bolstering the industry, and that’s exactly what some Jacksonville manufacturers and colleges are working on doing. 

The longstanding impression of the manufacturing industry as old-fashioned factory settings isn’t the case for many manufacturing facilities today, which are clinically clean, high-tech facilities. The misconception is holding back high schoolers from entering the field.

“It’s about making sure that parents realize that working in manufacturing is a great career path and encouraging their children to go down those paths,” Ray said. “A number of parents are saying ‘well, you need to go get an education,’ and so they go get an education, but they don’t have an education that gives them tools for jobs. Let’s get an education that’s going to give you a job and career path, and don’t be afraid of something that’s necessarily hard work. It’s different work, but it’s good work. It gives people good tools and good opportunities.”

Pay for manufacturing jobs is “impressive,” Ray said. In Florida, those who work in manufacturing make an average of $51,075 annually, oftentimes without more than a two-year college degree. 

Johnson & Johnson Vision Care is helping expose younger people to the benefits of entering the manufacturing industry by partnering with Englewood High School. The past two summers, three students from Englewood interned at Johnson & Johnson to get a first-hand look at some of the skills necessary to work in a manufacturing facility.

“It opens their eyes to a work experience they might not be aware of,” said Paula Shepherd, general manager of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care’s Jacksonville manufacturing plant. 

FSCJ is also working to draw kids into its advanced manufacturing program, meeting with high school guidance counselors to educate them on the opportunities available so they can relay that message to students considering career options. 

Next summer, FSCJ plans on offering camps for middle and high school students that focus on manufacturing through more high-tech avenues such as robotics and mechatronics. 

FSCJ’s advanced manufacturing program is based on input from the industry: It has an advisory board comprised of 35 local manufacturers who meet at least twice a year to discuss what’s changing in the field and what skills they’re needing most. 

“We don’t want our companies to have to go outside Jacksonville or outside the state of Florida to get a workforce,” Killam said. “We should be able to supply that workforce and meet their needs.”

In addition to training and developing new additions to the manufacturing workforce, FSCJ also works to further develop skills of those already in the field. Shepherd said workers at Johnson & Johnson are frequently sent to FSCJ to close gaps in their knowledge or to earn certifications in one of five areas: advanced manufacturing, CNC machinist/fabricator, engineering technology support specialist, pneumatics, hydraulics and motors for manufacturing and mechatronics.

With both new students and professionals in the field looking for more training, FSCJ routinely fills up its 15-student classes, and overall enrollment has been going up. 

Tapping into Veterans

While many manufacturers look to FSCJ and younger people to staff their facilities, others in Jacksonville are looking to a different, older age group: retired veterans.

“All veterans come with an intangible skillset that is hard to replicate with people that are younger,” said Ben Davis, founder and president of Now Hiring Heroes, a military veteran recruiting firm. “They have commitment, loyalty, dedication, respect, and they come in 15 minutes early, shoes shined and they match the belt, shirt tucked in and clean shaven, yes ma’am, yes sir. All those things that you and I may take for granted are really starting to fade away in the incoming generation.”

Companies like Anheuser-Busch and Johnson & Johnson Vision Care have seen success with veterans in their facilities. At the Metal Container Corp. facility, which expanded its line in May, nearly 50 percent of workers are former military. 

Shepherd said in the past, Johnson & Johnson Vision has been “particularly successful” in recruiting from the veteran population.

“The experience they bring from being in the military quite often means they’ve already got that broad engineering skill, and they’re used to working in what I would describe as more stressful situations than what they see on a day-by-day basis,” Shepherd said.

The Need for Training

“The people who are operating the equipment also are an engineering crew as well,” Shepherd said. “We’re not traditional like some industries where we have a maintenance crew for example. We certainly have some specialized maintenance, but the people who run the lines here also look after that maintenance.”

When Johnson & Johnson Vision can’t find candidates with strong capabilities in all three areas, in-house training is there to fill gaps in their skills. 

Such an approach is becoming more common, as companies focus on manufacturing their own workforce.

“I’m not expecting companies with 20, 30 employees to have a program to develop professionals in the area that they need the most,” Gerdau’s Zanoelo said. “But the big companies with more than 100 employees, if they plan to stay in this region, they have to do that.”

That particularly important as factory work becomes more complex — meaning fewer people are qualified — although that complexity can help in recruiting. At Gerdau Steel, Zanoelo said his workers “hardly touch the process,” which isn’t what most might assume about factories today.

“There’s still a lot of belief that manufacturing jobs are extremely rigorous, hard labor,” said Craig Tomeo, general manager at Anheuser-Busch’s Jacksonville brewery. “I think we need to be able to market all manufacturing fields that, for the most part, today have become very technical in nature, there’s a lot of automation. Someone who likes to be challenged, not just with their hands but their minds would really be people who would do well in the manufacturing environment.”

And although manufacturers are quickly losing workers to retirement — at the Metal Container Corp. facility, between 10 percent and 15 percent of the workers are eligible to retire — the younger generation coming in has grown up with technology, making it easier to pick up technological processes in the factory. 

“The same thing it took some guys 25 years to be good at, nowadays some kids can take five to seven years be good at,” Zanoelo said. “People are leaving with a lot of experience, [but] the learning curve is a lot faster nowadays.”

And that — as well as the other efforts being made to fill the gap — has Zanoelo at least slightly optimistic for the future of the industry.

“If we have a problem, let’s fix it,” Zanoelo said. “Just communicating you have a problem doesn’t solve it. I recognize that problem, it’s solvable, so let’s do something.”

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