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WATERLOO, Iowa — As baby boomers age, area manufacturers look to school systems to replace those older workers on the assembly lines.

Industry leaders say finding skilled workers may be their toughest challenge.

“It’s not always easy to find trained machinists,” said Paul Stapella, CEO of DC Industries, a contract machining firm in Waterloo.

On Wednesday, Blackhawk Engineering hosted the first job fair in its nearly 40-year history.

“It’s hard to find workers,” John Oltman, the company’s general manager, said, adding that the company would accept any suitable applicant, with or without experience.

The company expanded its plant in the Cedar Falls Industrial Park last year and was looking to fill 25 jobs the expansion created, Oltman said.

“The manufacturing sector is struggling,” said Mark Weidner, CEO of Powers Manufacturing in Waterloo, a 100-year-old company that churns out athletic uniforms for a client base of schools that stretches across the U.S. Powers Manufacturing employs about 120 workers, which is down by 50 or 60 over the last three or four years, Weidner said.

Stapella said his company works closely with Hawkeye Community College in the Exploring Manufacturing Careers Consortium, or “EMC-squared,” a program to educate young people about manufacturing and career opportunities in high school.

“We’re trying to develop young machinists, but we can’t do it fast enough to keep up with demand,” Stapella said. “And of course John Deere and all the machine shops in the area want them.”

Finding skilled young workers also is a worry for Ronan Schwickerath, owner of Ronan Industries Inc., a Waterloo-based packaging manufacturer.

“That’ a huge concern,” he said. “Smaller companies like me are going to compete for the labor pool with companies like Deere, but Deere can’t survive without people like us who package parts for them.”

Selling young people on a manufacturing career is a challenge, and Hawkeye is always working on new ways to expose kids as young as middle school-age to the benefits of a career in the skilled trades, said Kathy Flynn, the college’s vice president of advancement.

“There’s an image issue, I think people will agree,” Flynn said. “You have to convince them that manufacturing has changed. Obviously, there’s a different environment; it’s cleaner, more high-tech.”

Dave Ball, Hawkeye’s admissions director, said his department coordinates numerous outreach programs in schools across the Cedar Valley.

“We are committed, not only in our service area but across the state, to inform and introduce them to a clean environment.”

In mid-May, Hawkeye brought in 100 students to introduce them to numerous fields, with a twist, Ball said.

“We have a grant that’s geared toward nontraditional jobs for men and women,” he said. “We brought kids into introduce them to three areas traditionally dominated by one gender or another.”

As for manufacturing, the college has “career academies” in area high schools.

“You can walk out of high school to a job, with a good base knowledge in computers, numerical control, machining and welding,” Ball said.

Recruiting students early increases the chances of winning them over, Ball said.

“If we can introduce this in high school retention is higher, so we put a lot of our focus on applied tech in high schools,” he said.

Hawkeye also has an automotive technology program geared to high school students and also offers Project Lead the Way, which is focused on engineering, Ball said.

A U.S. Department of Labor grant has exposed about 20,000 youths to manufacturing careers over the last two years, Flynn said.

“We know how important manufacturing is for our economy,” she said.


Business Editor at The Courier

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