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‘Skills Interest’

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One manufacturer demonstrates that it’s not just about a skills gap in finding manufacturing workers.

By Staci Davidson, Managing Editor, Knighthouse Media

HM Manufacturing boasts state-of-the-art operations and innovative solutions to help customers remain competitive. While HM continues to invest in itself to grow, it frequently needs workers, like many U.S. Manufacturers, to fulfill all of its orders. President and CEO Nicole Wolter is doing all she can to not only bolster her own workforce, but also the local area’s base of manufacturing employees.

Since 1979, the Wauconda, Ill.-based company has been focused on providing power transmission components designed around its values of quality, innovation and versatility. Today, those values are reflected in the company’s synchronous drive products such as gears, timing belt pulleys, splines, shafts, chain sprockets, sheaves and related parts for power transmission and precision mechanical components.

Wolter joined HM in 2009, working alongside her father, company founder and COO Kenneth Wolter. She helped HM navigate through the Great Recession, and assumed the role of president in 2017. During her tenure, HM has expanded from serving primarily the automotive industry to also serving the food and beverage processing, aerospace, medical, marine and packaging industries. While the growth has been a boon to HM Manufacturing, Nicole Wolter also understands the importance of marketing HM and the manufacturing industry to the next generation of employees.

Manufacturing Today recently spoke to Wolter about how she is developing her workforce and what she believes needs to happen throughout the industry to gain more manufacturing employees.

Manufacturing Today: What skills are you looking for in employees?

Nicole Wolter: With so many companies competing for skilled workers, HM is looking for people we can invest in. So many manufacturers talk about a skills gap, but I want skills interest.

We offer internships to high school students to show them the advancements in manufacturing. Word of mouth has also been effective in recruiting new employees. Our staff right now ranges in age from 19 to 44. Because the staff is relatively young and building their careers, they’re very receptive when I want to implement new technology.

Operations

MT: What would you like to see in high schools to promote manufacturing?

NW: I work with McHenry High School, and their program is an ideal model. For a high school manufacturing program to succeed, everyone has to be on board. McHenry recognized that manufacturing is coming back and resurrected their program. They knew manufacturing wasn’t dead.

Their program starts with Metals I for freshmen and sophomores, with more advanced courses in welding or manufacturing with CNC, etc. for students who want to continue. All students who finish the program get NIMS certification, making them employable right out of high school. One young woman from McHenry is starting with HM this summer, programming machines. I am looking to hire more students as they graduate the program.

We have to bridge the gap and show the career path. We show students that they can get paid and we’ll send them to school – they won’t have debt.  

McHenry also has an incubator for business students. The business students will sell products that the manufacturing students develop. More than 100 students have gone through this program in two years with support from the Technology & Manufacturing Association (TMA) Education Foundation. It really does take a village.

MT: How can the manufacturing industry attract more women and girls into the workforce?

NW: We are doing a lot to get young women interested in manufacturing. I am on an advisory board comprised of active companies and community members. I also go to McHenry High School a lot – I talk to the classes and show them I am a woman who is succeeding in manufacturing. I think the more these girls and young women see successful women in manufacturing, the more interested they’ll become in the field as a career choice.

I’m definitely seeing an uptick in interest, and we are also learning a few things. Schools can’t place young women by themselves in large groups of young men. The isolation can make them uncomfortable and lead them to drop out of the program. We now group the young women together and give them attention and time to help them succeed. Then they are right there, learning quoting, elements of R&D, and CAD.

I would love to see more women in my job shop. It would totally change the dynamic! We would get so much done.

MT: What else can be done to further support programs like this?

NW: TMA grants serious money, but we need all levels of government to acknowledge that these programs are necessary and spend more money on them. We also need schools to understand the importance of manufacturing and skills-development programs. The superintendent, principal, staff and parents all need to be on board for a program to be successful. Unfortunately, some areas seem more committed to nurturing these programs than others.

We also need to be reaching students at an earlier age. By the time they get to high school, manufacturing might not seem “cool” to them or they’ve already formed their career preferences. If we introduce children to STEM earlier, they can learn to tinker and gain a real interest in the fields. GCAMP [Golden Corridor Advanced Manufacturing Partnership] funds programs for students in third to eighth grade. These programs allow the students to build with their hands and get involved in aspects of manufacturing at a very early age. However, I don’t know of any middle schools in my area that have manufacturing programs.

MT: What plans do you have for growing the HM workforce?

NW: I want to keep hiring young adults straight out of high school. I worry that this program is being pushed to kids but other companies aren’t stepping up to offer them jobs and show them this is a real option. I am taking chances and investing in their futures in the hopes they’ll help HM grow. If more companies hire out of high school and invest in developing their workforce, we may stop hearing about the “skills gap” problem.

Yes, it’s costly to train people, but it’s also costly to keep jobs open for weeks and have them go unfilled. Investing in your workforce can pay dividends back to your company. All of my people have gone through some training – from new hires to the most senior people – and I couldn’t be more proud of my team.

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