As manufacturing workforce retires, Lake Superior College provides pipeline of talent
Skilled workers are in high demand, and placement in well-paying manufacturing jobs is nearly a guarantee.
Moline Machinery, a family-owned maker of industrial bakery equipment in Duluth’s Irving neighborhood, is just moving into its new 25,000-square-foot expansion.
A pingpong table sits on one side of the wide-open space as computer numerical control (CNC) machines and other equipment recently moved from the company’s assembly building across the street fills one corner of the space.
“It does set us up for growth,” said Dan Moline, vice president of operations and the fourth-generation family member working there. “We weren’t able to grow before. Now we can.”
In a typical year, the company might produce five or six machines, custom orders for national doughnut, pastry, bread and snack companies. The machines are massive — some up to 200 feet long — with everything needed to make the bakery item: from cutting and shaping dough to frying and glazing doughnuts.
Moline now has about 90 employees, with almost 50 of those positions in the trades — assembly, machine tool operators, electricians and more — and the others in CNC programmer and engineer positions.
But Moline has consistently been hiring for most of the decade.
“We’ve had a lot of retirements, so we’re trying to keep up with that, so there’s been a lot of hiring,” Moline said.
And it’s not alone. Other area manufacturers like Altec and Epicurean are facing similar workforce issues, and, like Moline, are filling openings with graduates of Lake Superior College’s manufacturing campus in downtown Duluth. Some are even hired while they are still students.
Replacing an aging workforce
Recruiters for manufacturers within Duluth and throughout the region have been reaching out to programs at schools like LSC on a regular basis.
“It’s non stop … almost a daily call,” said Daniel Fanning, the college's vice president of Institutional advancement and external relations.
Max Udovich, an LSC machine tool instructor, said job placement at well-paying manufacturing jobs for graduates is near 100%, but many students are able to work as they complete the two-year manufacturing welding programs.
“It’s a win-win for the student … by the time they graduate, they have almost two years of experience,” Udovich said.
While some can even take full-time jobs before finishing the program, Udovich encourages students to finish school so they can advance to higher-paid positions.
Most area manufacturers are willing to offer flexible schedules for students. LSC also offers evening classes for students that might be working during the day.
That worked for Scott Welty, a CNC programmer and manufacturing engineer at Moline, who graduated from the college's integrated manufacturing program in 2010.
In his first semester there, he was hired as a CNC operator at Epicurean, a Twin Ports-based manufacturer of kitchen tools from wood composite, and worked through school.
“When I had graduated with the programming degree, (Epicurean) promoted me off the shop floor to programming,” said Welty, who still has his TI-83 graphing calculator from high school handy at his desk. “I went from running the machines to programming them.”
Changing the perception
There’s still a perception that jobs in manufacturing mean dirty working conditions and male-only fields. But Fanning said that’s changing.
More women are enrolling in the programs at LSC than a decade ago and more potential students understand what a modern factory looks like.
It starts with exposing high school students to the opportunities in manufacturing.
“We have to get to guidance counselors and parents just as much as students,” Fanning said.
High school industrial tech classes play an important role in introducing students to manufacturing. While most can offer welding, classes using high-end equipment like CNC machines are harder to find.
“It’s important to have that because the students are exposed to that, they understand it,” Udovich said. “Not every (high) school has the funding to get that.”
Still, 57% of the state's workers never learned about manufacturing careers before turning 18, according to a 2019 study.
Last year, West Monroe Partners, a Chicago-based business consultant company, asked 1,000 Minnesota workers aged 18-40 about the manufacturing industry. The study found 44% of respondents would not consider a manufacturing career, but that figure falls to 38% and 35% if the respondent had family employed in manufacturing or if the respondent grew up learning about manufacturing, respectively.
The study concluded "early education and awareness of manufacturing careers drives interest."
From 2019 to 2020, enrollment in LSC’s manufacturing programs — welding, machine tool, computer-aided design and integrated manufacturing — have increased from 419 to 448 students.
Enrollment in one spring welding course is up almost 32% compared to last year.
Fanning said those numbers are promising, especially when other area schools are seeing a decline.
“To me, that actually says even more about our community and our local economy than just LSC,” Fanning said.
And Moline is starting to see the impact of more local manufacturing students in its own recruiting.
“There was a gap there for a long time where people weren’t going to school, and now we’re starting to see a resurgence of that,” Moline said.