Filling the Void

Bringing Sexy Back to Manufacturing

By Gaylen Webb

September 9, 2013

Utah’s manufacturing industry continues to blossom, but can it sustain perennial growth? Not without some workforce development efforts.

While manufacturing employment in Utah has grown about 2 percent year over year, many manufacturing concerns are starving for skilled talent and the problem isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, it will likely worsen, says Todd Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association, because the number of available skilled workers is declining.

“We’ve got to get more butts in seats earlier in the trades and in engineering programs within our educational systems, and do a better job of educating today’s youth that manufacturing can be a great career and pay a wonderful wage,” he says. “We’re not getting enough skilled workers out the end of the pipeline.”

Utah manufacturers are smarting for machinists, welders, tech-trained individuals, assemblers, automation technicians and engineers. Bingham notes that one Utah manufacturer had a specific automation position open for nearly a year before hiring a candidate from another state. “And when the individual came to Utah for the interview, she had four or five more interviews lined up with other local companies looking for the same skill set.”

Entry-level Pathways

Even entry-level workers with soft skills are in hot demand. Brian Bowers, COO at Orem-based Mity-Lite, says his company struggles as much to find quality workers empowered with soft skills as it does to find tech-trained talent.

“Everybody wants the technical college kid. Of course, we want that too, but we also need guys and gals that will show up on time every day, that will pick up on what their roles and assignments are and fulfill them, that will be flexible and willing to learn new skills,” he says. “We probably fit the scenario that the typical manufacturers in Utah have to deal with. We do assembly work—we don’t make airplanes—but it is still difficult to find quality employees.”

While the hiring challenges aren’t yet inhibiting growth or escalating wages overall, Bingham says within certain trades there are bidding wars going on as companies compete for skilled workers.

Meanwhile, Bowers says there are qualified candidates “all around us,” but they don’t realize they could be doing interesting work that pays much better than a retail or fast-food job. Indeed, three or four years into that basic job that didn’t require any college, the employee could be earning $17 to $20 an hour in a meaningful career, he adds.

“How do we make manufacturing jobs sexy for today’s youth, so that they say, ‘Wow, I had no idea that because I grew up with a PlayStation paddle in my hand I could get some training and run a million-dollar CNC machine or a robotic arm?’” says Bingham.

Bowers thinks the industry is not doing a good enough job catching kids when they are in high school. “The typical student leaves high school thinking the only place he or she can get a job is in fast food or retail. They think they are limited to minimum wage and consider it good to get $8 an hour,” he says. “The starting wage at Mity-Lite is about $10 an hour, but the factory environment gets a bad name sometimes. It’s not a grungy environment. It is good-paying work, a good job.”

Rob Despain, vice president of business development at Ogden-based Petersen Incorporated, says his company is pinched by a dearth of machinists, engineers and level-three welders.

To alleviate the problem, Petersen Incorporated is “controlling its own economy. We are not just sitting back hoping that Mr. or Mrs. Right will walk through our front door. We are trying to educate and get involved in training people,” he says. “We spend a lot of time visiting the high schools, we speak at the universities and we work with the Ogden-Weber, Bridgerland and Davis Applied Technology Colleges (ATCs).”

Petersen Inc. leverages the state’s Custom Fit training program through the ATCs to provide employees with specialized training. “We are growing our own within, establishing goals with our employees—from entry-level on up—to have a career path and develop more skills, so if they want to be a welder, apprentice machinist, journeyman machinist or engineer, they’ll have the opportunity,” says Despain.

Take the Initiative

Meanwhile, Bingham says the UMA spent a year working with state government and industry leaders to develop an initiative that focuses on manufacturing workforce development. The first phase of the initiative was funded through the Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership and is just being completed in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, the Utah College of Applied Technology, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

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