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Manufacturers Increase Efforts to Woo Workers to Rural Areas

Manufacturers Increase Efforts to Woo Workers to Rural Areas

They call it the “Not So Heavy Metal” tour. It’s a lighthearted effort by Minnesota-based Alexandria Industries to introduce middle and high school students — as well the general public — to manufacturing.While the name is humorous, it belies an issue that is anything but. The component manufacturing company, with about 550 employees roughly two…


They call it the “Not So Heavy Metal” tour. It’s a lighthearted effort by Minnesota-based Alexandria Industries to introduce middle and high school students — as well the general public — to manufacturing.

While the name is humorous, it belies an issue that is anything but. The component manufacturing company, with about 550 employees roughly two hours north of the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, faces an acute problem affecting many rural manufacturers: a shortage of workers to fill skilled and unskilled positions.

The company, which supplies manufacturers in the medical, automotive and defense industries, among others, has at least 50 unfilled jobs, and its predicament is not unusual.

“It doesn’t matter whether the company is in Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas or Pennsylvania,” said Tom Schabel, the chief executive of Alexandria Industries. “One of the top issues is the difficulty of finding people.”

rural opportunity zones, and workers relocating to any of those areas may qualify for help with student loan repayment up to $15,000 or may be eligible for a state income tax waiver up to five years. Vermont recently enacted legislation to pay up to $10,000 for those relocating to the state who work remotely for companies based elsewhere.

Longer term, both private companies and state and local governments are focusing on training, whether on site or by partnering with local secondary schools as well as nearby colleges. Determining that curriculum can be difficult, said Christopher Chung, the chief executive of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. Industry often evolves faster than education providers. “As a result, there’s always a lag in what industry needs and what the education system is cranking out,” he said.

There’s also the risk that the training is too general for a skilled pool, John Molinaro, the chief executive of the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth, based in Ohio, said. He advocates for so-called upskilling — where current employees are trained to take on more sophisticated work.

For students, the training can be high tech. In Campbell County, Tenn., for example, students don technical gear and use tools to learn welding skills with a twist: Their initial introduction is through a virtual reality computer program, said the deputy mayor, Andy Wallace.

Companies are also taking chances on candidates who lack experience. Several years ago, Sheldon Burslie, now 28, moved away from his Twin Cities roots with his young family. Although he had neither a college degree nor a manufacturing background, Alexandria Industries hired him and provided technical, as well as leadership, training. Six years in, he has been promoted and plans to stay “until I retire.”

BMT Manufacturing, a company in rural Tennessee that makes trailers, has a program for inmates nearing release to train them in technical and life skills, said Keith Simpson, its president. The company has grown and will soon expand its plant in Jacksboro, Tenn., in part with former prisoners.

Veterans are another source of workers, but have often been overlooked. That is beginning to change. The Defense Department already has what it calls a skills-bridging program for those nearing the end of their enlistments. In addition, the Manufacturing Institute in January introduced a new program, Heroes MAKE America, to offer more advanced training in manufacturing skills for people leaving the military; the program also would connect them with prospective employers, Ms. Lee said.

In January, the first program began in Fort Riley in Kansas; a second site will open this year in Texas at Fort Hood.

Concentrating on the armed forces has another benefit: Veterans appear to be more willing to relocate. “A significant number of armed forces say they want to go where there is opportunity,” Ms. Lee said.

It’s unclear whether other younger workers are willing to go rural; there’s a perception that recent college graduates prefer metropolitan areas. But that, Mr. Molinaro said, is an urban legend. With short commutes and open spaces, these areas can attract workers of all ages as long as suitable, affordable housing is available. Although Mr. Burslie of Alexandria Industries says he misses the proximity to his extended family, he earns more and his costs, such as housing, have been “slashed in half.”

Still, manufacturing has an image problem.

Students may shy from pursuing manufacturing jobs because of the misconception that it is “dark, dirty and dangerous work,” Mr. Chung said. The reality can be very different. Modern, advanced factories incorporate automation and robotics in brighter spaces, he said.

Ms. Lee said that while 80 percent of those surveyed think it was important to invest in manufacturing, “only a third want their children to pursue manufacturing careers.”.

To counter those perceptions, many factories open their plants to the public to show what really goes on, Mr. Schabel said. Other communities, like Gaston County, N.C., highlight high school students who accept jobs in manufacturing by having a “career signing day,” a nod to the annual events in many communities in which star high school athletes announce the colleges they will attend.

Skilled foreign labor remains an attractive alternative, although often difficult to obtain, especially in the current political environment. Mr. Wheeler of Wigwam says his company has retained a lawyer to apply for work visas for mechanics, who are in particularly short supply. He is focusing on recruiting from Honduras, because he became familiar with their high level of skill when working at another company, he said.

Mr. Wheeler hopes to bring some to Sheboygan. “The hardest thing will be the winters,” he said, “when they’re here and can’t feel their nose or their toes.”

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