While some parts of the country have struggled to make it through the recession, manufacturing companies in the Hutchinson and Litchfield areas have done well.

One look at the demand for machinists is all it takes to know that these manufacturing communities are thriving. In an area that is rich with manufacturers, the demand for qualified machinists is higher than the pool from which businesses can draw.

Tammy Jablonski, an instructor in the Machine Tool Technology program at Ridgewater College in Hutchinson, sees a similar situation in the school’s program.

“The job outlook for machinists is high. Students that are in our program have the opportunity to find positions well before they have completed their education,” she said.

Despite this high demand and the availability of scholarships, the program is currently under-enrolled.

Generating interest

For many years, as high school students considered career paths, the outlook for college graduates seemed most promising. While this is true in many industries, careers in manufacturing often are overlooked due to the perception that there are few jobs available or that the pay is low.

For many students, especially those who enjoy hands-on work and have an aptitude for numbers, a career as a machinist is a perfect fit.

“This program will appeal to students who are good problem-solvers, like a fast-paced environment, and have a head for numbers,” Jablonski said. “A career as a machinist is a great combination of both manual and computer skills. There are so many places that this job can take you.”

In Central Minnesota, first-year machinists can expect to earn an average of $35,000 per year. After 10 years, a good machinist can expect to earn as high as $85,000 per year. For many students, the combination of a good-paying job and a positive job outlook is appealing. Two-year programs, like those offered at Ridgewater College, add to the appeal by providing a way for students to get into the workforce at a lower cost and at a faster pace than it takes to acquire a four-year degree.

Companies like Midwest Industrial Tool Grinding Inc. in Hutchinson are working to try to generate interest in machining programs like the one offered at Ridgewater College.

“Over the past few years, our business has experienced extraordinary growth. As the needs of our customers have expanded, we’ve looked for qualified workers to help us keep up with the tool manufacturing demands that our customers require,” said Eric Lipke, MITGI general manager. “We’ve been pleased with the quality of the graduates of regional machining programs. We’d like to see even more students become interested in this growing field.”

As in many other parts of the United States, some manufacturers are making an extra effort to generate interest in careers in manufacturing. Working with area high schools, MITGI encourages students to consider manufacturing in their long-term plans.

Lipke believes that it’s important to educate students and parents about jobs in manufacturing.

“Over the years, the face of manufacturing has changed. Many facilities, like ours, offer clean work environments, good pay, solid benefits, and long-term employment,” he said. “Employees can make a career here, and enjoy the benefits of living in a mid-sized, Central Minnesota community.

“By meeting with area students in the classroom and providing tours of our manufacturing facility, MITGI is hoping to encourage more students to enroll in programs like the machining program at Ridgewater,” Lipke said.

Building relationships

Getting more students to enroll in manufacturing programs is only the first step to creating a thriving workforce pool of candidates. As the demand for machinists continues to increase, manufacturers work to attract and retain qualified candidates.

For many area businesses, this means developing and nurturing relationships with local community and technical colleges, as well as state universities.

Through scholarships, paid internships, and participation in advisory boards, businesses can help to provide support and influence the effectiveness of area programs.

Jablonski of Ridgewater College said she is encouraged by businesses that provide help for the students and the school.

“Partnerships like the one between MITGI and Ridgewater College help to keep the college informed of the current employment needs in manufacturing, ensuring that our programs are giving the students the skills that are desired by area manufacturers. We’d like to see even more businesses get involved,” she said.

For manufacturers, creating partnerships with area technical programs provides many options with both short- and long-term benefits:

  • Business-sponsored scholarships help students defray the costs of education, and in turn, helps connect the business to the student.
  • Paid internships and mentorships allow students to receive practical work experience while they are in school, also allowing businesses the opportunity for early recruiting.
  • Business leader participation in advisory boards ensures that the programs offered meet the current needs in manufacturing, and helps students to be prepared to work when they finish the program.
  • Tours help students to see different types of facilities, work environments, and explore career opportunities.

MITGI found that through scholarships and paid internships, it’s been easier to connect with students before they decide where to work.

Now in the fourth year of partnership with the Ridgewater College Foundation, MITGI has found that about 30 percent of those students who received a MITGI scholarship or worked as an intern have stayed and are current employees.

“As a recruiting tool, our work with the Ridgewater College Foundation has been a great way to get our name out to Ridgewater students. When students consider where they want to work after graduation, we want to be a premier choice, and this helps us to be in the forefront of their minds. We’ve also found that the more we work with the faculty, the better they understand what we’re doing, and they help to recommend students who they believe would be interested,” Lipke said.