116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Four years ago, MSI Mold Builders in Cedar Rapids was struggling to find and train workers to operate its computerized vertical milling machines to make molds for plastic injection molders.
Despite offering to pay for training and a significant share of employee benefits, MSI Mold Builders President Roger Klouda said the challenge persists.
'We will pay 100 percent of a Kirkwood Community College education — books and tuition — if you work for us as an intern for 10 hours a week,' Klouda said. 'We also pay 84 percent of the family health insurance premium. You would think that I would have people lining up at the door, but no, not so much.
'A lot of the baby boomers' impressions of factories and manufacturing work is so slanted in the wrong direction. They don't want their kids to go into manufacturing.'
Last month, MSI Mold Builders asked the Iowa Economic Development Authority Board for more time to meet hiring requirements in connection with state financial incentives awarded in late 2012 for a $5.6 million expansion.
Tina Hoffman of the Iowa Economic Development Authority confirmed that MSI Mold Builders is not alone in its quest to attract, hire and train qualified workers.
'Just a few weeks ago, I was at a meeting of the MidAmerican Economic Development Council — a group of Midwestern states that get together and share best practices,' Hoffman said. 'Each state talked about the work force attraction strategies and programs they were putting in place, and they could have been talking about our exact programs,
'They are facing the same challenges and hearing the same things from businesses. It's not an Iowa problem, but an issue that's occurring across the country.'
Mark Thoeny, president of American Profol in southwest Cedar Rapids, said his company also was having problems finding qualified workers — in his case, to handle equipment maintenance at the plant that manufactures polypropylene films for a variety of applications and markets.
'We just decided to home-grow our own,' Thoeny said. 'We hired people who had an interest and we thought might have an aptitude, but they didn't yet have the skills.
'We've used a combination of in-house training and Kirkwood to turn them into the skilled workers that we need.'
Thoeny called the task 'a journey.'
'They're not out there in numbers,' he said. 'We try to move their skills progressively up and higher into the ranks of the maintenance department.
'We still don't have all the skills that we want, but we're much better off than if we had waited to hire them off the street. I don't think it would have happened.'
At Apache in Cedar Rapids, which fabricates and distributes hose, belting, cut and molded rubber as well as industrial consumer products for domestic and international customers, the manufacturer offers a financial incentive to employees who refer a successful candidate for employment at the company.
'We are a little different in that it's a physically demanding work environment,' said Tom Pientok, Apache president and CEO. 'We need the skills, but we also need people who have the physical strength and desire certain production jobs.
'We have a very robust employee-referral program. It's early on, but we believe that will be very helpful in us being able to attract and hire the caliber of resources that we would like to have in our company.'
If employers in relatively larger urban centers such as Cedar Rapids and Des Moines are having difficulties attracting qualified workers, employers in smaller communities such as Manchester and Oelwein experience even greater challenges.
Henderson Products and XL Specialized Trailers in Manchester have faced a shortage of welders, but the companies have taken separate approaches. Henderson has worked with area high schools to recruit potential welders, and XL Specialized Trailers has looked for welders from trade schools in southern states.
East Penn Manufacturing in Oelwein will break ground June 28 for a $68 million battery-manufacturing plant, distribution center and warehouse that will employ 350. Deb Howard, executive director of Oelwein Chamber and Area Development, said the expansion at East Penn follows on the heels of a doubling of the work force at Transco Railway Products.
'Transco started this process with right around 70 employees, and they are currently at 147,' Howard said.
The company worked with Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) Business and Community Solutions to develop a railcar repair pathways certificate training program.
The Oelwein Chamber, the Oelwein schools, the city of Oelwein and NICC are forming a sector board to pursue work force development, she added.
'I can't find all of the skilled workers that area employers need,' Howard said. 'The businesses cannot find them on their own. NICC can't get the students to recruit if they are not interested in those areas, and the schools will not know what training is needed if they don't have contact with businesses.'
Howard said the sector board is committed to establishing career pathways so high school students can get the skills and training they need for employment.
'We have received a grant to have three teachers certified this summer for on-the-job training while students are in high school,' she said. 'They also will take some courses through NICC that will give them college credits while they are earning through what will be an apprenticeship program.'
While Oelwein and other communities are trying to address what they and employers contend is a skills gap, Iowa State University researchers Dave Swenson and Liesl Eathington said there are several factors contributing to hiring challenges — but a widespread lack of skilled workers is not one of them.
'First, when employers say there's a skills gap, what they're often really saying is they can't find workers willing to work for the pay they're willing to pay,' Swenson said. 'If there was a skill shortage, people would be working longer hours and workers would be getting higher wages.'
Klouda said MSI Mold Builders requires a higher skill level to operate computer numeric controlled machines that cost $1 million. He disagreed that pay is the issue, saying a two-year Kirkwood graduate will make about $40,000 the first year.
'After 10 years, they will be making $70,000, $80,000 or $90,000,' including overtime, Klouda said.