by Adam Jacobson, JN Machinery

The “skills gap,” “millennials,” “qualified workers.” All of these types of words and more are becoming the norm when talking about the problems facing the manufacturing industry. This is not just a problem for our spring industry, but for the entire manufacturing community. This current skills gap is set to grow, as more and more qualified workers hit retirement age. The skills gap is a complex problem, of which I can only scratch the surface. The reality is we have to start somewhere to make progress.

Back in high school, some dozen or so years ago now, I remember everyone from teachers and guidance counselors to my own parents were pushing a four year college education. They particularly pushed the four-year education that lead to jobs with computers. Everyone would say, “Computers are the future. That is where all the jobs are going to be.” I remember thinking, “Computers are great and all, but someone is still going to have to build and fix those computers.” I realized this early on, which lead me to take every shop and auto class I could in high school. Those classes quickly became my favorite part of the day. I didn’t realize it then, but those classes were laying a foundation for a career path.

 As high school started to wind down and my friends started getting acceptance letters to various colleges, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. My mom brought to my attention a new program offered by the local tech college. It was a small blurb in the local paper about a new program that highlighted the need for qualified and skilled employees in manufacturing. The article highlighted the strong relationships it was growing with local companies. Some of these companies donated equipment, tools and services that students could learn on.

Because of that article, I enrolled in Gateway Tech for their automated manufacturing systems technician program. I earned a two-year associate degree which set me off on my career path. One of the most attractive things about this degree was the strong foundation I would gain in several fields. Having a good understanding of everything from electrical to hydraulic systems has made me very adaptable throughout my career path.

My career path started during my second semester at Gateway. A local division of ITW came to Gateway Tech looking to find an entry level, part time employee to start as a junior automation tech. Fortunately, one of my professors recommended me and I quickly went from no career path to having a great entry level job in my field while going to school full time. I stayed with ITW for three years and earned my degree while working part time. I still had my sights set higher and I quit my job in pursuit of a four-year bachelor’s degree.

 Through my instructors at Gateway Tech, I learned of a program where my credits could transfer to a state school, University of Wisconsin–Stout (UW-Stout). Unfortunately, I quickly learned that UW-Stout was not for me because all the credits that I earned at Gateway only transferred as electives. I also learned I was not fond of the traditional classroom whatsoever After a year at UW-Stout, I decided to get back into what I knew best and took a job as a maintenance technician at a plastics company. I grew more as a person outside the classroom. In my five years at that company, I became well rounded in many different areas of the business, with more opportunity due to its smaller size.

Having been in different facets of the manufacturing industry, it’s clear to me that the struggles to find qualified workers is not just a spring industry problem. In my opinion, I believe that there are three key areas manufacturers need to focus on when trying to hire younger skilled workers: Technology, culture and attitude. When I first started out, I was very much intrigued by the technology aspect of manufacturing. These days we are a very gadget driven nation, and that should transition into your company. A company’s technology can be one of its best assets in recruiting new people. Companies should show off their newest equipment and use that to draw the attention of the younger generation. If the candidate can see how they fit into your use of cutting edge technology, they will get excited about working for you. I also highly recommend getting involved in your community at the various education levels. You could donate equipment to a local tech school or community college, hold open houses after hours for high school students, or sponsor an event at the high school or college. Try to set the example of how manufacturing should be as an active member in your community. Show your community that manufacturing jobs are not the dirty and dangerous jobs they once were. As a younger member of this industry, I believe some of the problems in hiring and retaining candidates stems from management styles encountered in the workforce. The difference in work ethics plays a major role. Before, a person would stay at one job or company for their entire life. In today’s world, if we don’t like our job or we’re not getting along with our boss, we can find a new one in just a few simple clicks. No one wants to do the same thing day after day anymore, just because they are happy to have a job. Employers need to realize that millennials are wired for variety. Unfortunately, simply doing something because a boss says so isn’t good enough. This generation wants to understand why it’s important and how our contributions benefit the company. If any employee doesn’t feel valued, they are likely to leave. The skills gap will continue to be a challenge for our industry. I realize I am a unicorn in the manufacturing industry with my years of experience at a younger age, coupled with a degree. I hope that in some way my story and suggestions can at least spark communication within your company. Whether you are a big or small company, you can help fill the skills gap. It will not be an easy gap to close, but if we can open a dialog on our successes and failures, we can work toward generating more action and interest. We must all work together and look inward to help create exciting new ideas that create small changes that benefit the whole.
Adam Jacobson

Adam Jacobson

General Manager

Adam Jacobson is the general manager of JN Machinery in East Dundee, Illinois, a position he has held since October 2015. He earned an associate degree in automated manufacturing and has more than 10 years of experience in manufacturing, mainly in plastics. Jacobson can be reached at 224-699-9161, ext. 120 or email: adam@jnmachinery.com.