Local Manufacturers Still Grappling With Worker Shortage

Jun 9, 2015

Many employers in the U.S., including in Milwaukee, struggle to find qualified workers. According to a recent Manpower survey, one in three employers are having a tough time even though the economy has improved.

The greatest area of need remains in the skilled trades, including construction.

Eric Isbister owns GenMet, a metal fabrication company in Mequon. It makes a range of items, from military trucks to store displays.

Sparks fly as a welder bonds together two pieces of metal. “Each weld is important. We tell our welders that each weld is their signature,” Isbister says. Isbister employs 70 people and says he wishes he could hire more. Demand for his products has soared.

“If I tell my customer I can make it in three weeks and my competitor can do it in two weeks, I lose. So, it takes people, people to run the machines,” Isbister says.

Isbister is looking to hire welders and laser operators. He says the jobs pay an average of $18 an hour – although some metal fabricators can earn nearly $100,000 a year when you mix in overtime. GenMet also offers health insurance, a retirement plan and training, yet struggles to keep jobs filled.

Isbister says sometimes younger workers leave when other manufacturers offer a couple dollars more per hour. But he thinks most young people never consider a career in the trades because they have not yet shed their old image.

“Manufacturing is not dirty, dumb and dangerous. It’s high tech. You see computers at every work station,” Isbister says.

Jake Ritchie says he jumped at the chance to work at GenMet. He’s a welding apprentice and says he’s been interested in the trades since he was a kid.

“I’ve always found science to be a very interesting topic. A lot of the things we do here are types of applied sciences. You have electric currents you’re dealing with, lasers, the electronic aspects of the press brakes,” Ritchie says.

Ritchie is also taking welding courses at Waukesha County Technical College. Many skilled trade positions require a technical school degree. It seems word may be spreading that jobs are available.

Big numbers of students have been enrolling at Milwaukee Area Technical College. President Vicki Martin says it’s been communicating with hundreds of local employers, to gauge their needs.

“We expanded our welding lab capacity. We opened up a new lab at our Mequon campus and we expanded at Oak Creek and West Allis as well to meet employer needs,” Martin says.

Martin says MATC has also been reaching out to potential new pools of workers. For instance, the college just finished training about a dozen people who’ve been incarcerated. Manpower spokesman Todd Filter says manufacturers may have to cast a wider net to fill positions.

“If an employer is willing to invest in someone who’s not quite fully trained or doesn’t have quite the skills, you’ll see some of the younger generation come into the workforce. Also, employers are looking more now to disadvantaged people, whether it be from diverse backgrounds or those who’ve had personal or disability struggles who we can still train and get them into the workforce,” Filter says.

GenMet’s Eric Isbister agrees young people are key. That’s why he spends time in high schools lobbying students to choose careers in manufacturing.