Kirkwood Community College working to attract, train 'gold-collar' workers

Demand for skilled workers growing in Eastern Iowa

Associate Professor of CNC Machining Technology and Industrial Technologies Andy Livin (left) assists second year Kirkwo
Associate Professor of CNC Machining Technology and Industrial Technologies Andy Livin (left) assists second year Kirkwood student Casey DeBoer on a Lathe machine in the Computer Numerical Control Lab in Jones Hall at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids on February 11, 2013. Kirkwood offers a 16-week CNC machining operator certification course. (Kaitlyn Bernauer/The Gazette)

The Harvard Business Review once described the so-called "gold-collar" worker as possessing the mind of the white-collar office employee and the hands of the blue-collar factory laborer.

With Eastern Iowa businesses needing more of these skilled, gold-collar workers, Kirkwood Community College is preparing to launch a short-term program to train and certify computer numerical control (CNC) machinists.

"Right now, we have a lot of employers clamoring at our door because their applicant pools are shrinking," said Kim Johnson, Kirkwood vice president of continuing education and training. "They understand that the skills are not there that they're looking for, especially for the middle-skilled, middle-wage occupations.

"CNC machining is an occupation within the production manufacturing industry that is clearly showing signs of a great skills shortage. We've been working with our Advanced Manufacturing Sector Board, which has between 12 and 16 employers at any given monthly meeting, for about two years."

The board started by looking for ways to collectively address work force pipeline and skills gap issues, Johnson recalled.

"The philosophy is that this group of employers will be with us through thick and thin," he added.

The CNC machinist certification program, which will launch on Feb. 25, is a 16-week, 4-module accelerated format program, noted Amy Lasack, director of Kirkwood Training and Outreach Services. The initial class will need a minimum of 7 students and could accommodate as many as 18.

The Business Connection

"We surveyed about a dozen employers about what should be included in such an accelerated program, and all but one employer returned their survey, which speaks to the need," Lasack said. "At the same time, our CNC program for college credit is being revamped to include NIMS (National Institute for Metalworking Skills) credentials, which are nationally recognized.

"We worked hand-in-hand with the credit side of the college to identify what we should include in this accelerated format, and four of the NIMS modules will be part of the program."

Johnson said employers have indicated that they want program participants to complete the 16 weeks of training in afternoon sessions during the week, then continue to pursue additional NIMS modules and training through the college's two-year associate of science degree program.

"Ten employers have signed a letter of commitment to interview program graduates for jobs," Johnson said. "Some of them also have indicated they will provide tuition assistance for those who want to continue their education after they are employed."

Johnson added that Kirkwood CNC program applicants will need to take the National Career Readiness Certificate assessment and achieve "silver" level to ensure they have appropriate math skills to complete the training.

"It's really the start of a good career, with initial pay of $30,000 to $35,000," Johnson said. "With a two-year degree and additional experience, the annual pay can grow to between $50,000 and $60,000."

The cost of the 16-week CNC machinist certification program is $845 per module, or $3,000 if paid as a lump sum. Roger Klouda, president of MSI Mold Builders in Cedar Rapids, has committed $20,000 to "seed" a tuition assistance fund for the program, said Kathy Hall, vice president of resource development for the Kirkwood Foundation.

"The Kirkwood Foundation has historically provided scholarships for students in the two-year associate degree program," Hall said. "The Klouda family and MSI Mold Builders have been supportive of the two-year CNC programs with two endowed scholarships. They've seen them work over time because it breaks down financial barriers."

In addition to seeding the tuition assistance program, Klouda also wants the $20,000 to work as a catalyst so other employers will contribute to the scholarship pool, Hall said, "and we've seen some interest emerging."

Klouda also hopes to use some of MSI's contribution for marketing, believing that there are misperceptions about CNC machining and other gold-collar manufacturing jobs.

"These are good jobs for young people who are college capable, but just not college-focused," Klouda said. "In days past, the kids who took shop class were the ones who weren't going to go to college. Today, the kids who won't make it in college will not make it in CNC.

"It requires a lot of math and visual skills to be good, and good CNC machinists are making good money. Our plants are air-conditioned and we still pay 80 percent of our employees' family health insurance premiums."

Getting the word out

The results of this talent shortage are becoming more apparent in the workplace. Participating in a Feb. 6 roundtable discussion on work force challenges, "In Search of the Skilled Worker," at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C.,  Jim Ryan, president and CEO of international industrial supplier W.W. Grainger, said companies are requiring employees to work longer due to a shortage of skilled workers.

"The average age for a highly skilled machinist or highly skilled tradesperson in manufacturing is 56-years-old," Ryan said. "The average age for someone working in a manufacturing plant is 44-years-old."

Yonnie Leung, senior manager for work force development at Pacific Gas and Electric, another Aspen Institute conference participant, emphasized that employers need to work closely with community colleges and other educational institutions to bridge the skills gap.

"Nobody really thinks about utility jobs anymore,” Leung noted. “There are a lot of good-paying jobs in the utility space, starting at about $50,000 a year, for a job where you can do without a four-year degree, possibly even without a two-year degree.”

But, Leung added, getting that information to prospective employees is not happening effectively.

Kirkwood's Johnson said a committee of the Advanced Manufacturing Sector Board is looking at what can be done to make students and their parents in the kindergarten-through-grade-12 system aware of the opportunities in gold-collar jobs.

"They're discussing strategies to involve the high schools, including holding parent forums to showcase what is happening in manufacturing," Johnson said. "Kirkwood and the Workplace Learning Connection (which hosts job-shadowing opportunities for students) will help the committee logistically so they don't have to waste time getting appointments."We need the employers' voices for this to be successful." 

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