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Northland employees need updated skills in new manufacturing reality

James Kohn, a machinist at Northern Engineering, brings a repaired driveshaft back to spec on a metal lathe. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 8
Greg Kneringer operates a forklift at Ikonics. He has worked for the company for 16 years. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)2 / 8
Heather Wiita runs a machine that cuts plastic film to sizes requested by Ikonics’ customers under lights tinted to protect the film. Wiita applied for a job at the company on the recommendation of a neighbor who works there. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)3 / 8
Matt Becka, Ikonics’ robotics application manager, examines the operation of a robot used for sandblasting and mechanical trimming operations. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)4 / 8
Ikonics employee Arturo Melero checks the size of holes in a sandblaster to ensure their diameters are within acceptable limits. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)5 / 8
Machinist Mark McDonald operates a large metal lathe at Northern Engineering. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)6 / 8
Northern Engineering shop foreman Mike Ossanna said he’s grateful the company’s owners invested in equipment and a new shop addition. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)7 / 8
8 / 8

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series examining the state of manufacturing in the Northland.

Just as he has spent decades working with his hands, Mike Ossanna uses them to show how much has changed on the floor of Northern Engineering in Superior.

“It goes from prehistoric to the 21st century,” the shop foreman said, motioning

from the manual machines to the computerized mill and lathe.

For manufacturing employees, it’s not the product but the process that has evolved the most, causing an old profession to be in need of new skills.

It’s not enough, though, to come in waving a certification or hold any pretense about doing a single job.

“I think a lot of the young kids want to do this,” Ossanna said, pointing to the year-old mill and its advanced computer interface. “Everybody wants operators, but we need someone who can do the old stuff, too.”

And for the older employees, Ossanna, 52, admitted it can be tough to unlearn old ways of doing things.

But it’s either find the balance or bust in this constantly evolving trade.

Culture change

Manufacturing productivity has doubled in the past 20 years, and inside the new addition to the Ikonics Corp. shop on Grand Avenue in West Duluth it’s easy to see why.

“Years ago, when I started, materials were fairly simple and unsophisticated,” said Claude Piguet, executive vice president of the film and aerospace company. “Now it’s different technology, different chemistries, and there is more control. Nothing is to be left to talent.”

If it’s computers that give an unprecedented precision and control, it’s the people sitting behind them who need to “own what they do,” Piguet said.

Matt Becka was sitting at the controls of Ikonics’ six-axis robot last week — maybe not where he pictured himself years ago but certainly a seat he wants to keep for years to come.

“It was a roundabout way into manufacturing,” said the 38-year-old, who initially went to art school after graduating from high school. It was Becka’s interest in design that led him to Lake Superior College after moving to Duluth years later, and he liked what he saw.

“The technology has come so far from when I came out of high school,” he said. “I got a firsthand look at CNC (computer numerical control) and saw how big it had gotten.”

Becka was hired from an internship before he graduated, as Ikonics knew his skills could be snatched up elsewhere, and those CNC skills are in high demand.

“Basically we need more competency than qualifications,” said Sue Boudrie, operations manager of the Advanced Material Solutions division Becka is in. “I can take a competent person and qualify them in anything.”

Boudrie said there’s more employee participation on the shop floors today than in years past, with workers suggesting improvements.

“It’s a culture change,” she said. “It’s not just ‘going to do my job and go home.’ They’re actively involved.”

Art Melero, for example, came up with a way to reuse more particles in sandblasting, cutting down on one of the department’s biggest costs. Last Wednesday, he was working in one of the high-end sandblasting machines that dot the spacious floor of the firm’s expansion, carefully checking an aircraft composite for perfect perforations.

From the employee’s perspective, increasing productivity makes them more valuable, though it may come at the cost of jobs for others. That is, unless that productivity leads to growth, which is Ikonics’ case.

“The growth plan is to have some more hires in the next year,” said Boudrie, who started two years ago overseeing five employees and now manages 12.

A little help

The middle class flourished last century due in part to high wages paid by readily available jobs in manufacturing for workers with even cursory skills they picked up in high school. The middle class may flourish this century for different reasons, though manufacturing still can play a part if workers and their advocates are proactive, not reactive, about the industry’s continued upheaval.

“Particularly in the taconite plants, where I represent, we had negotiated a couple of pieces in our contracts that give employees opportunities to upgrade their skills,” said John Rebrovich with United Steelworkers District 11 in Minnesota. “If new technology or processes come in, we provide training to our folks.”

This mindset is not new; Rebrovich said the national union took steps in the 1980s to offer training and education after that decade’s recession took out 600,000 jobs for steelworkers.

“This gave them the opportunity to learn other skills, other trades,” he said. “In case they lose a job, they’ve got the education to go on and do something else.”

Unions don’t cover manufacturing employees as much as they used to, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting just 10 percent of the country’s workers represented in the industry, down from 16 percent in 2000. But employers also are taking steps to provide training, tuition reimbursement and other career-security incentives.

“We’re seeing employers use this as a recruiting tool,” said Todd Dahlstrom, organizing and growth director with Minnesota AFL-CIO.

They’re going to need to. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, 80 percent of firms say there’s a “moderate or serious shortage” of skilled applicants.

“Almost every employer we visit is telling us we need workers,” Dahlstrom said.

Not everyone takes steps like Mark McDonald did. When the company he worked for on Connor’s Point closed, the Superior man went back to school and has been a machinist for the 12 years since.

“I bounced around a few different places; the economy hasn’t helped,” the 42-year-old said. “But I’m fortunate to be back here and have stability.”

Even in his five years at Northern Engineering, McDonald already has borne witness to the advance of technology in his workplace. Though some of the machines in the 100-year-old shop have been in use for decades, the newest additions were brought in just in the past year, with training provided by the machine’s manufacturer.

Ossanna, the shop foreman, was grateful the company’s owners invested in the equipment and a bright new shop addition, as it shows customers “we want to be around another 100 years.”

Different paths

The cast of Northland manufacturing, from 27-year-old Heather Wiita smiling under the yellow glow of Ikonics’ film conversion room to 58-year-old Greg Kneringer guiding a forklift on the other side of the door, all got their roles in different ways.

Whether it be state, union or workplace training or a pursued degree or certificate, manufacturing is a door unlocked with many keys.

For Sean Smith, it was a four-year degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota Duluth that led him to his desk at Northern Engineering.

Good pay and a solid job market for engineers led him into the career, plus, he said: “I find it more fun than if I were to do anything else. Computer work seems monotonous, and business is a big risk coming out of school.”

After two years of interning at Northern during college, Smith was hired on. He said working at a smaller firm allows him to take on more responsibility right away than he would get at, say, Ford.

From the new offices of the 100-year-old business, the 23-year-old offered a nuanced outlook on his chosen field.

“There’s a lot of variables out there,” he said. “A lot of it is the global market, and Southeast Asia has emerging markets we have to compete with. I think we’re better positioned in America to use technology to cut down on costs.”

Rebrovich with USW says some of the offshoring that sent so many manufacturing jobs overseas is starting to reverse as that experiment leads companies to realize: “It’s probably cheaper to train our forces to do it.”

That anticipated growth leads to some stability in the sector, though the skills gap between workers and available jobs and many policy issues will have to be tackled to strengthen any lasting rebound.

The year Smith was born, there were 4 million more manufacturing jobs in the U.S. than there are today. But that doesn’t dim his optimism for his career or the careers of others, whether they’re a few years from retirement or a few years from starting employment.

“There’s going to be something out there for everyone.”

Brooks Johnson

Brooks covers business and the economy for the Duluth News Tribune.

(218) 723-5329
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