Iowa's Steel Spine
Companies, colleges scramble to fill worker shortage in manufacturing industry
October 9, 2013
Kathleen Riesberg practices a metal inert gas (MIG) weld during a Des Moines Area Community College welding certification class last week. MIG welding is the most common type in the region’s manufacturing industry, said DMACC provost Steve Schulz.
Although Iowa is America's largest producer of corn, soybeans, pigs and eggs, the state's manufacturing industry brings in three times more revenue than agriculture, accounting for more than $26 billion of the state's economy.
According to state and local officials, demand for both products and workers in this industry is rising further, fast.
"The heart and soul of Iowa's economy is manufacturing," said Gov. Terry Branstad during a stop at Quality Machine in Audubon last Wednesday for Manufacturing Week. "There is a need for a skilled workforce."
Quality Machine, a precision machining manufacturer, makes components for hydraulic, medical, military, automotive, agriculture and other industries. In 2012, Tim Greene, the company's president and CEO, was named the U.S. Small Business Administration's Iowa Small Business Person of the Year.
The company has 52 full-time employees, averaging a weekly wage of $784 while generating the products necessary to fill the orders of the company's annual $8 million of sales. And it's looking to hire more.
Quality Machine has six positions open - four for night shifts and two for days - ranging from entry- to higher-level. Entry-level positions at Quality Machine start at about $12 an hour, and salaries can increase to $20 an hour or more with experience, Greene said. Over the next few years, he expects his workforce will continue to grow.
According to Steve Schulz and Jack Thompson, provost and instructor at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), respectively, Quality Machine is not alone. The shortage of workers in the industry as a whole has prompted DMACC and other community colleges to revitalize programs, such as DMACC's new welding-certification offering.
"We've had small interest before (in welding), but the industry is calling for it now," said Thompson. "They want to see more of it, and that's what we're trying to provide."
The program is designed to get students working in the field as quickly as possible, a goal aided by the industry prevalence in the Carroll region. Companies include Quality Machine of Iowa, Carroll Coolers, Evapco Inc., Scranton Manufacturing Co. Inc., Bauer Built Manufacturing and John Deere, Jorgenson Machine Tools and Toyne Inc. Items manufactured range from machine parts and farming equipment to appliances and fire trucks.
Thompson said there are also smaller "mom-and-pop" shops in the area "screaming for help."
They include at least three welding shops in Carroll specializing in part fabrication and agricultural repair, added Schulz. Welding jobs are also available in the maintenance world, such as for processing plants, a career path that involves travel across the country.
"It's one of the hot jobs right now," said Schulz.
The demand derives from colliding factors. A rebounding economy, combined with numerous natural disasters, is increasing production needs, said Thompson.
"There were a lot of things lost that people need -/ either they need new, or they need repaired. The market is coming back again," he said. "Put a garbage truck under three feet of water, and it doesn't do any good; it tends to destroy a lot of systems."
With more than 3,500 manufacturing companies in the state, as counted by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and a statewide unemployment rate of less than 5 percent compared to the nation's 7.3 percent, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, recruitment efforts for welders and similar manufacturing laborers is fierce.
"They're all looking for welders, and they're competing against each other, so that's driving the wage up," Schulz said of the local companies. "They don't like the idea of stealing (employees) from each other, but that's kind of what's happening."
Manufacturing jobs - welding, machining and others - are a good fit for anyone who has a mechanical aptitude, even if one lacks experience, said Greene.
"It's nice to have a technical school background if you have it, and if you don't, if you have the will to want to learn and comprehend, if you're mechanically inclined at all, most manufacturers have decided to work closely and train them," he said.
This training can be provided through on-the-job efforts, or by paying for an employee to complete a training program, such as that developed at DMACC.
"I don't want younger kids intimidated by the fact that they haven't got a degree in something or haven't been to college or haven't been through the full tech-school courses, because there's such a shortage of help out there in the manufacturing arena that we've basically said to ourselves, 'We have to figure out how to train them ourselves, work with them, get them up to speed,'" Greene said.
While rapidly advancing technology often signals the end for segments of the blue-collar work force, this correlation is not found in the manufacturing industry. In fact, the rise of automation in machining in recent years has allowed employees at companies such as Quality Machine to do a greater quantity of more accurate work in less time.
"People are talking about how automation is taking jobs away, and it's really not," Greene said. "The automation in our machinery, it's helped us drive the percentage of labor down in the cost of each part."
Automation is allowing the company to produce 50 percent more with the same amount of workers, allowing Quality Machine to "win business back," he added.
"It's a constant skill," Thompson agreed, referring to welding in particular.
While the industry has the ability to "go higher tech" and utilize robotic systems, most companies can't afford these systems, the cost of which range from $250,000 to $500,000 or more.
"I think the availability of welders will determine how far they go with robotics," said Schulz. "If they're not able to hire enough people able to weld by hand, they'll have to address the need through robotics."
In the meantime, the need for machinists and welders doesn't stop at the Iowa border. The oil industry has created a need at refineries stretching across the southern United States, while pipeline expansion in the same industry has created demand more recently in North Dakota.
"If you look at the shortage of metal workers nationwide, it's a pretty transferable skill," said Schulz. "If you decide to move, there's going to be work about anywhere you go."