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How Rochester is addressing the middle-skills gap

How Rochester is addressing the middle-skills gap

As the nation’s manufacturing sector contends with a middle-skills gap that may seem more like a deep chasm, Rochester-area manufacturers are divided on what that gap looks like locally and whether it has improved in recent years.

Whether large or small, more often than not area businesses are addressing that gap through collaboration and apprenticeships.

Bob Coyne, apprenticeship coordinator for the Rochester Technology & Manufacturing Association
Bob Coyne, apprenticeship coordinator for the Rochester Technology & Manufacturing Association

Last June, the Rochester Technology & Manufacturing Association, or RTMA, began an apprenticeship program for its members that will help to both fill vacant middle-skills jobs and do it in less time than if the business had initiated the program itself, said Bob Coyne, RTMA apprenticeship coordinator.

“This started because the small businesses now don’t have the infrastructure and overhead to support the indirect requirements for running a New York state-certified apprenticeship program,” Coyne explained.

RTMA provided all of the required documentation each manufacturer would have had to file itself and now serves as a group sponsor. With a cohort of 53 apprentices, some 19 area manufacturers are part of the state program through RTMA. RTMA applied for and received approval to offer apprenticeships in 13 manufacturing trades including machinist, mold maker, CNC machining operator, precision optics technician and industrial manufacturing technician, among others.

“Now companies can register directly with us without having to go to New York state, if that’s what they choose,” Coyne said. “The benefit of that is we can get an apprentice registered in about two weeks. If they were to start their own program with the state it could take anywhere between four to six months.”

For some time, state officials and community leaders lamented the loss of upstate manufacturing jobs. But following the Great Recession, New York saw a surge in the sector, particularly in the advanced manufacturing arena and in companies who were able to exploit new technology and automation.

In 2017, a team of educators, business leaders and elected officials in the Finger Lakes region came together to look at the current workforce challenges in the advanced manufacturing sector. Their research, based on data provided by Monroe Community College, found a “significant gap” between the demand for middle-skill workers and the number of learners completing relevant middle-skills training or education programs within the region, according to the group’s “Finger Lakes Advanced Manufacturing Strategic Sector Plan.”

Middle skills are broadly defined as skills acquired through a two-year college degree or the equivalent in manufacturing trades education. MCC’s data showed an estimated advanced manufacturing, or middle skills, gap of 349 workers in 2017. The region had 22,529 manufacturing workers that year.

Put differently, the Finger Lakes group found that the lost economic value for each unfilled position was $141,570 annually, while the total lost economic value was $49.4 million, given the gap of nearly 350 workers.

A more recent gap analysis done by MCC estimates 2,130 job openings in manufacturing this year in the Finger Lakes region, with a gap of 1,855, based on college and trades enrollments and completions, widening substantially since the 2017 findings. Further, MCC predicts a 10-year aging out projection of 31.2 percent, as manufacturing workers approach retirement age, one factor contributing to the skills gap.

Nationwide, in January the sector had nearly 13 million jobs, and the National Association of Manufacturers reported that there are more than 500,000 job openings.

Coyne said that while volume manufacturing work may have dwindled here over the years, custom or short-run manufacturing has come to life. And that requires a different kind of worker with different kinds of skills.

“The factory worker doesn’t come in and sit at one station for weeks or months on end, doing the same thing anymore,” he explained. “They may have five or six different jobs in a given week.”

That results in a need for cross-training and workers who have higher skill levels, another cause for the middle-skills gap that many in the industry have experienced. The “Finger Lakes Advanced Manufacturing Strategic Sector Plan” noted that “during the past 50 years, millions of low-skilled jobs have been eliminated due to automation and offshoring,” and that manufacturing sector jobs in the U.S. and in the Finger Lakes no longer will be a source of low-skilled jobs.

Coyne said the RTMA apprenticeship program easily could handle 100 students, and officials plan to add 30 apprentices per year. The industrial manufacturing technician apprenticeship is an 18-month program, Coyne said, whereas traditional apprenticeships are four years. That means every year and a half, up to 100 more middle-skill-level workers are entering the manufacturing workforce.

Nearly all of the new RTMA apprenticeship training is done at MCC, although some online coursework is available through Tooling University. Community colleges elsewhere—such as Genesee Community College in Batavia—have similar affiliations with other organizations.

“The schools understand that four-year colleges are not for everybody anymore,” Coyne noted.

A 2015 Deloitte Development LLC report shows that a negative image of the manufacturing industry—the Finger Lakes manufacturing group stated the same image issue—coupled with a scarcity of science, technology, engineering and math talent in high schools, make recruiting the right candidates challenging for manufacturing companies.

To that end, RTMA and other manufacturing associations are collaborating with local high schools to educate students about the sector and offer them hands-on experience to entice them to the field. In fact, the Finger Lakes group in its report suggested its sector strategy be a marketing and education campaign “to engage and educate students, parents and educators that manufacturing in the U.S. and the Finger Lakes region is alive and well.”

The group’s report recommended the campaign target school teachers and guidance counselors, as well as middle and high school students and their parents, and the group established the goal of closing the advanced manufacturing middle skills gap in the Finger Lakes region by Dec. 31, 2023.

Coyne said an initiative in the works is a pre-apprenticeship program.

“All the companies we go into say this apprenticeship program is great, but where’s the next generation of skilled help going to come from?” Coyne said. “Because BOCES and MCC are not graduating enough candidates to fill all the open positions. This pre-apprenticeship initiative is intended to excite the parents, grandparents, students still in high school, educators and employers to engage with kids before they even leave high school, so that by the time they graduate they can direct hire into a skilled trades apprenticeship program.”

High school and BOCES students, as well as other individuals interested in the program can reach out to their guidance counselors, apply through MCC or check with the employer to see if it has an apprenticeship program available.

Not every manufacturer is feeling the pinch.

William Pollock, president and CEO of Optimation Technology
William Pollock, president and CEO of Optimation Technology (RBJ file photo) 

“We aren’t,” Optimation Technology Inc. President and CEO William Pollock said. “I know other people are. It’s sort of curious.”

Optimation hired 25 people last year, Pollock said, half in its engineering department and half in fabrication, or its trades group. But the Rush manufacturer may have a leg up on the competition: Optimation more than a decade ago began a successful state-certified apprenticeship program of its own.

“We hired 10 apprentices last year in the program, five in the fall, five in the spring,” Pollock said. “Even though it’s not a requirement, fully half of those guys and girls have a degree of some sort.”

Optimation has some 200 employees, half of whom are middle-skills trades workers. Pollock acknowledged that while other manufacturers have experienced a skills gap, Optimation has no problem finding qualified workers, certainly in part because of its apprenticeship program.

“We started off with only one class a year and now we’ve ratcheted it up to two classes a year. We have so many really qualified candidates and we can’t put them all into the program,” he said. “Under the state rules for certification, you have to have three journeymen for every apprentice. So the number of journeymen we employ caps the size of the apprenticeship class until some of those guys graduate and become journeymen.”

Optimation has 23 apprentices enrolled in the program now.

Pollock made an interesting observation, that without a relative or friend or neighbor in an industry, kids may be less likely to choose that industry for their careers. That could contribute to the skills gap in manufacturing.

“This is true of any profession. If kids grow up and want to be something, they need a role model,” Pollock said. “If nobody in their family or nobody in the neighborhood is an electrician, the odds of them thinking about being an electrician are way reduced. I’m going to say 20 percent of our apprentices have an uncle or a dad or a cousin who is already a tradesman. They follow in that experience.”

As Optimation continues to fill its positions vacated by retirees with younger people, Pollock has noticed something else: the manufacturer is readying its long-abandoned daycare for staff use.

“Back in the day we were the only company in seven counties that owned and operated our own daycare. At one point we had 20-plus kids and you had to pay your deposit a year in advance,” Pollock said. “Now we’re getting ready to reopen the daycare. It’s a win/win.”

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