Project Milwaukee
10:25 am
Tue October 30, 2012

Businesses Adapt to Lack of Qualified Workers

Businesses in Wisconsin have been adapting to the fact they cannot always find the qualified employees they need. The skills gap has been affecting industries from manufacturing to health care. In today’s installment of our series Project Milwaukee: Help Wanted, WUWM’s LaToya Dennis visited several companies to learn about the impact the skills shortage is having on them.

Chris Hoeppner works on a machine that bends metal at Waukesha Metal Products in Grafton.

Fluorescent lights create a rather sterile ambience at Waukesha Metal Products factory in Grafton. The fabrication plant makes everything from equipment boxes for dental hygienists to library book drops to candy machines. Chris Hoeppner wears protective eyewear while working on a machine than bends metal into useful objects.

“We’re just trying to put a 90 degree bend on this little part here,” Hoeppner says.

If a calculation is off by even the tiniest amount can make all the difference.

“So we have to calculate the distance, they’re giving us the overall here; I have to calculate out to get to the inside of the dimension, including the radius…,” Hoeppner says.

Hoeppner says after doing the job for nearly 18 years, mathematical calculations are second nature.

“I can do this in my sleep,” Hoeppner says.

However, finding other workers just as skilled has proven challenging, according to CEO Jeff Clark.

“We have positions open today. We have six, I was counting the other day from engineering positions to press setup operators, which is one of higher skilled jobs, we also seek tool and die makers and we have a prototype position open,” Clark says.

Clark says in order to work around the problem, he’s made a few changes. For instance, he’s increased the number of youth apprentices he takes on – yet says not many people are interested. Clark has also automated more of the operation, but has found automation is not the answer either.

“You still need people. We still need to have the brains and the people who can solve the problems,” Clark says.

Clark says when he finds workers with potential, he pays for them to attend school. He also fights to hang onto the employees he has offering them opportunities to advance and competitive wages and benefits. So far, Clark says he has succeeded, but retaining staff could become difficult if the skills shortage becomes a larger problem.

“As with any economic push when there’s a limit to the resources available that pricing is going to go up. We can’t let price pressures put us out of business by really struggling to take away the limited amount of talent that we all have to share here in the state,” Clark says.

Clark says he has not yet lost out on business, but his company’s growth is limited, if skilled workers remain scarce. One solution he sees to the shortage is a change in immigration laws.

“We’re educating people in the university systems that are foreigners and often we make them leave after they’ve completed that. We should be competitive and retain any talent that we create here in this country and in this state,” Clark says.

Clarks says Wisconsin and the U.S. should also train immigrant workers for the skill sets American businesses need in factories.

“If we don’t have a good immigration policy we’ll have to move outside of the country ultimately, to go where there is labor,” Clark says.

The skills gap is real, but there already is a viable workforce here, according to Melanie Holmes. She is a vice president with Manpower.

“When I talk to employers about the skills gap, I have a hunch that employers, and I’m going to include myself and include us in this category, are being a little bit too picky about the people we’re looking for,” Holmes says.

Holmes says too picky - meaning the perfect employee simply does not exist and employers must train, despite the cost. She says the three hardest positions to fill right now are skilled trades, engineers and IT workers.

Sarit Singhal knows how difficult it is finding people to fill open positions at his IT company. He owns Superior Support Resources. His office is tucked inside a business park in Brookfield.

“Right now when we’re putting an ad out there we’re still getting very much like in the past, anywhere from 100 to 200 resumes that are coming in. But the challenge that you have is very, very few of them are qualified,” Singhal says.

The company employs 36 people and is looking to add five more. Singhal says he’s turned to alternate recruiting methods to fill those positions.

“We hired an outside firm. They’re going through social media, they’re not a traditional recruiting firm, they target individuals and help us acquire these talents,” Singhal says.

Singhal says the lack of qualified employees is hindering the amount of work his company can take on. As incentives to retain and encourage existing staff to sharpen their skills, he offers tuition reimbursement for those who take classes, and pays bonuses when certain goals are met.