Thanks to Michigan’s ongoing craft beer boom, IPAs and bourbon stouts are becoming as much a part of our state identity as the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Camaro. But what do beer production and auto manufacturing have in common?
Turns out – a lot.
Last year, Grand Rapids-based Founders Brewing Co. expanded its beer production to become the 14th largest brewer in America, distributing 563,000 brewers barrels (the unit breweries use to define their volume) to 49 states and 29 countries – handily claiming the title of Michigan’s top brewery.
The key to achieving that mark is Founders’ investment in a world-class production facility, which utilizes cutting-edge manufacturing tools and the latest software to operate its machines. But that technology requires a human component to diagnose, repair and maintain it all 24/7 and keep production lines running smoothly.
“As this equipment gets more advanced, the people who work on it – like me – need to be equipped with a whole new set of skills,” said Cash Molski, the maintenance manager at Founders.
“This field is moving so fast. The machines I learned on 20 years ago are obsolete now. The mechanic of the past is not equipped to work on this new gear. And the problem is, there’s not enough young people coming up through the ranks to learn how to repair it.”
‘The need is there’
Machinery maintenance careers are an essential part of production facilities like Founders. That’s due in large part to a rise in automation, which carries with it a need for highly skilled professionals who have hands-on experience.
To fill its worker pipeline, Founders started an industrial maintenance technician apprenticeship program two years ago, putting existing employees on a high-paying, high-tech career track. Apprentices work toward a two-year certificate at Grand Rapids Community College – which Founders pays for – while receiving full-time on-the-job-training throughout the process. Requirements include two years of production experience at Founders, passing an aptitude test and possessing proven communications and mechanical proficiency skills.
“The need is there and there are lots of open positions,” Molski said. “Getting involved in the Professional Trades is a great way to build a skill set and earn a healthy salary, and you don’t need to go into debt to do it.”
Molski said one of the best parts of his job is that every day is a little different. On any given shift, he could find himself reviewing work orders with control engineers, replacing motors, recalibrating equipment or using digital tools to prioritize and assign technicians to jobs around the factory.
“The preventative maintenance aspects are pretty straightforward,” he said. “But corrective maintenance can get tricky. It’s just a matter of having a level head and always being open to learning something new.”
Across Michigan, employment for industrial machinery mechanics is projected to grow 10 percent annually, with approximately 1,840 annual openings and an average salary of $50,000; Molski earns about double that due to his years of experience and his management role.
Yet with ample availability and a potential $100K-plus annual salary, employers are still struggling to fill these posts.
A new solution
Michigan’s career development programs support training in occupations traditionally referred to as “skilled trades.” The state promotes training and exploration in a wide range of occupations in industries such as advanced manufacturing, healthcare and cybersecurity, spurring Michigan’s creation of the all-encompassing term “Professional Trades.”
But the demand for these careers far exceeds the supply of qualified workers. Estimates show Michigan will experience a workforce gap of more than 811,000 openings by 2024 due to the emergence of new technologies and retiring baby boomers. Overall, Michigan’s working-age population across multiple industries is projected to decline by 6.7 percent between 2020 and 2030 – the steepest decline of any state in the U.S. – posing the single greatest threat to the state’s continued economic recovery.
And while CNBC declared Michigan a Top 10 State for Winning the War for Talent in its America’s Top States for Business 2018 study, state leaders in business, education and government agree more work is needed to satisfy employers’ hiring needs.
Bill Rayl is president of the Jackson Area Manufacturers Association (JAMA), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the manufacturing climate in south-central Michigan. His organization works with about 270 member companies, and he’s seen a spike in interest in manufacturing jobs – specifically in industrial machinery mechanic positions.
“This is a very hot job,” Rayl said. “That wasn’t true five years ago. As production facilities in Michigan continue to become automated, it creates a bigger need for companies to have employees on staff who have a strong working knowledge of this high-tech equipment and can troubleshoot and repair it quickly if something goes wrong.”
But in Michigan, appreciation for Professional Trades – and the apprenticeship opportunities that open the doors to these fields – lags. A recent study indicated that more than half of Michigan’s high school students, young adults and parents lack knowledge about the value and benefits apprenticeships offer, with only about 1 in 10 high school students considering apprenticeships a good career path option.
That’s why the Talent and Economic Development (Ted) Department of Michigan created Going PRO, a groundbreaking campaign to elevate the perception of Professional Trades and showcase the numerous career options and apprenticeships available across the Great Lakes State.
“Michigan is bursting with career opportunities for eager workers with a wide range of education levels and interests,” said Stephanie Beckhorn, Ted’s acting director.
“Professional Trades are extremely diverse, incorporating industrial machinery mechanics, web developers, massage therapists and diagnostic medical sonographers, among many others. And lots of these career paths can be started with an apprenticeship, specialized credential or even an associate degree.”
Which makes now an ideal time for someone in Michigan to enter the Professional Trades. Many companies have built-in apprentice programs similar to Founders, but there are also a wealth of other opportunities, including JAMA's Academy for Manufacturing Careers, which provides customized Professional Trades training to thousands of eager Michigan residents.
“If you have the skills,” Rayl said, “you can write your own ticket to success.”