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Metro East manufacturers, Missouri contractors need fresh recruits

U.S. Steel continues to ramp up production at Granite City Works following an idling that lasted for a couple of years.
File photo | Davd Schaper|NPR

Stakeholders on both sides of the Mississippi River are ramping up recruitment efforts due to a shortage of workers pursuing careers in construction. In the Metro East, those recruitment efforts also include manufacturing.

The  Leadership Council of Southwestern Illinois is launching a campaign Monday to encourage high schoolers to train for careers in those fields.

“What we’re trying to do is roll out basically a public relations or public education initiative that will help folks see the opportunities that are available right in our area in terms of good jobs, family-sustaining jobs that don’t require four years of college,” said David Stoecklin, executive director of the Madison County workforce investment board.  

 Stoecklin, who also is a member of the leadership council, said the goal is to “dispel some of the beliefs and notions about manufacturing as a dying business sector in the United States” and spread the word that manufacturing and construction have evolved into highly technical careers.  

The council estimates that 1,500 manufacturing jobs and 1,200 construction jobs will need to be filled in southwestern Illinois over the next five years as the existing workforce retires.

At this point, the main purpose of the campaign is outreach into high schools, which includes drawing attention to training opportunities at community colleges and through apprenticeships.

“We want to talk to the counselors there, to their administrators so we’re sure that young folks are getting all sides of the story (about) the availability of jobs, the kinds of training,” said Stoecklin. “A lot of times those are sort of overlooked in the haste to get kids prepared for college.”

But Stoecklin sees the labor shortage as in part a consequence of high schools cutting technical program such as shop, leaving businesses with fewer qualified applicants.  

“One of the things we want to work at in cooperation with this education campaign and the community is to also bring in all the educational entities to see what we can do to open up that valve and starting that flow again of folks who are trained in some of these basic skills of computer numeric-controlled machining, welding, etcetera,” said Stoecklin.

If the Metro East can’t provide the skilled workers area businesses need, Stoecklin fears that they will leave.

“If we can’t get this done, then of course those businesses are going to go where they need to go to get that satisfied,” said Stoecklin, adding that manufacturing is an important part of the Metro East economy.

“We depend quite heavily in Madison County and St. Clair County as examples, on the manufacturing jobs that we have,” said Stoecklin. “They have a tendency to support four other jobs just because of the higher wages and the sort of spin-off, if you will, of those other companies.”

Missouri contractors face labor shortage

BJC Healthcare is in middle of a large construction project employing a lot of workers.
Credit file photo | Provided by BJC HealthCare
BJC Healthcare is in middle of a large construction project employing a lot of workers.

A recent survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America found that Illinois and Missouri construction firms, like firms nationwide, are having a hard time finding workers. Contractors surveyed said they also don’t expect the problem to go away anytime soon.

According to Len Toenjes, president of the Associated General Contractors of Missouri, a lot of workers left the industry or the state during the economic downturn, leaving construction with both an image problem and a skills gap.

“Finding people to come back into the industry is very difficult because of the recent history,” explained Toenjes. “Because of the lack of work, a lot of people could not support their families and the industry got a bad image.”

While the construction industry has always cycled between booms and busts, Toenjes believes that a consolidation of contractors will provide more stability in the future.

“With the global economy that we’re in, we’re in a whole different marketplace right now,” said Toenjes.

Part of that new marketplace is technology advancements that require additional training for those that are returning to the field.

“It’s really a lot more sophisticated career than it was five years ago,” said Toenjes.

In addition to technology, lack of math skills can create a barrier to a career in construction. Toenjes said most contractors are satisfied with the training provided at the apprenticeship level, but feel public schools need to do a better job of preparing students.

“Frankly a lot of the people who are coming in to get started in the trades … are at 3rd and 4th grade level math and if you can’t read a ruler or multiply ½ by ¾ you’re kind of in trouble,” said Toenjes.

Toenjes spent Thursday and most of Friday in meetings with Missouri contractors developing a strategic plan that addresses the labor shortage. He said their plan is to “get a lot more aggressive in recruitment” by reaching out to high schools, community colleges and adults statewide over the next year.

The message: “working at the trade is not only physically challenging but mentally challenging and financially rewarding.”  

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

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