Sparks shot across the room at the L.J. Shosten Training Center in St. Paul as apprentices welded pipes and ground prickly steel to a smooth finish. Nearby, others hovered over a misaligned motor like doctors tending a patient.
Workers with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters union have been feverishly busy, yet Paul Trudeau remains worried. “We are short on manpower,” said Trudeau, the head of training for Minnesota’s next generation of industrial repairmen and mechanics for the union.
With an estimated shortage of 600,000 industrial workers nationwide, a movement has begun to build a larger, highly skilled manufacturing workforce. Trade unions, businesses, and colleges in Minnesota and across the country are investing millions to train workers in manufacturing, construction and industrial machinery.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Labor committed $58 million toward job retraining efforts in Minnesota, and the state followed with $9.3 million of its own.
The growing demand for workers coincides with the rebound in construction and manufacturing. Across the Twin Cities, more than $1.7 billion in building projects are scheduled to begin within the next few years, including stadiums, highways, light rail, and mall and factory expansions. Those jobs alone call for more than 20,000 workers by 2015, and analysts wonder if there will be enough to go around.
Openings in manufacturing range from advanced machinists to quality-control technicians, and many positions require workers to have a range of skills in math, computers or engineering. Already, Minnesota companies are having difficultly filling an estimated 25,000 jobs at factories and technical firms, citing a lack of suitable workers.
“We are in a critical moment of time to make this transition,” said Darlene Miller, CEO of Permac Industries in Burnsville and a member of President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.
Miller and other executives cite a decade of stress on the manufacturing workforce for the current gap, including layoffs and factory upgrades that made some positions obsolete. Many potential workers moved to nonmanufacturing jobs when the sector appeared to be weakening further during the recession.
And the nature of industrial work has been rapidly changing, prompting calls to recalibrate college curriculums and expand training programs.
All the while, the number of workers who know how to fit pipes, build foundations and maintain turbines is shrinking as baby boomers exit factories, power plants and refineries. The Manufacturing Institute, a Washington, D.C., research group, estimates that the labor shortages will get worse over the next three years.
“There is already a gap of 35- to 50-year-olds,” Trudeau said. “The truth of the matter is our contractors are going to be lacking for workers.”
Several Minnesota companies are creating more internship positions in an effort to develop more skilled workers.
In Fridley, on-the-job internships are being offered for metal stampers. St. Paul, Burnsville and Duluth have similar opportunities for mechanical millwrights, those who install, dismantle or repair machinery. Internships also have opened for construction and garment machine workers in Minneapolis.
The carpenters union in St. Paul recently increased its mechanical millwright and pile driver apprenticeships by 60 percent to 105 positions. The group wants even more and has sent recruiters to engage trade schools.
Meanwhile, the union’s 600 Minnesota members are busy doing technical maintenance at a variety of industrial complexes, including the Flint Hills refinery, Sappi and Blandin paper mills, Xcel’s Sherburne County power plant and the Gerdau steel mill.
Such activity has Shane Jacobson of Maplewood feeling optimistic about his next job opportunity. In 2009, Jacobson, now 35, was laid off from his manufacturing job at H&B Elevators Inc. Today, he’s busy repairing windmills and turbines, building conveyors for Delta Air Lines and fixing motors for AllTech Engineering.
“I am getting more demand for my degree,” said Jacobson, who is completing the 7,000 hours of field work required to transition from millwright apprentice to journeyman. “For a while, it was actually difficult to get work as an engineer.”
On a recent day at the Shosten training center just off Hwy 280, Marty Zanmiller of Cottage Grove practiced using a sophisticated protractor, cutting wedges from thick pipes and grafting extensions — the sort of skills he must possess for oil refinery jobs that involve processing equipment.
“Everyone delayed their maintenance during the slow time,” said Zanmiller, who works for Yale Mechanical and is in his third year of the millwright training program. “Now they are so far behind, they need” machinists.
With the recession over, Zanmiller is sure he will have work for years to come.
Miller, the CEO of Permac Industries in Burnsville, launched the Right Skills Now training program in 2011 with other manufacturing firms that give students on-the-job internships, scholarships and 24 weeks of classroom training.
Interns learn to program computerized machines that fabricate metal parts to precise specifications. Right Skills Now has grown from 35 students in January 2012 to 60 who are taking classes at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis or South Central College in Faribault or North Mankato.
Despite such efforts, no one expects the manufacturing skills gap to disappear quickly, but they’re a start, said Mark Hamel, spokesman for Honeywell, which has production facilities in Golden Valley and Minneapolis.
Honeywell manufactures automated thermostat and building control systems, as well as defense, aerospace and firefighting products. Since 2009, the company has bolstered its internships and recruiting in an effort to fill hundreds of openings for engineers, electricians and technical workers.
“We have nearly quadrupled the internship and [school-work] opportunities in Honeywell globally to meet our business needs,” Hamel said.
To foster more manufacturing training, the Minnesota Legislature approved $850,000 in May to create 250 internships for high school students. It also appropriated $8.4 million for the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership to link manufacturers and technical colleges and customize job retraining. Last year, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and its business partners helped train 122,000 employees.
Other institutions anxious to expand training efforts include Anoka Technical College, which created a sheet-metal training program three years ago. Recently, the college was approached by the metal casters group and by the metal platers and finishers of Minnesota to develop programs in their respective areas, said Nick Graf, director of Anoka’s Advanced Technology Center and workforce training.
The college is rushing to develop a curriculum, and classes could start as soon as next year, Graf said.
“They told us that they could hire 1,000 people in a year if we could just train them.”
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725