What is one thing that every community and every company have in common?
Industrious men and women are what drive our world forward. Which is why workforce development issues are a perennial hot topic across every industry. When it comes to workforce challenges, the manufacturing sector is one industry being hit especially hard by retirements and a decreased talent pipeline, as well as by dynamic changes in robotics, advancing technology, automation, analytics, artificial intelligence, and more.
The need to keep pace with an evolving world continues to be of paramount concern — and recruiting new talent and upskilling existing workers are critical to that effort.
Ignoring the much-discussed “skills gap” is not an option in today’s rapidly growing economy where industry statistics suggest that up to 2.4 million positions could go unfilled between 2018 and 2028, according to the 2018 skills gap study released by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute.
Further, the study shows that positions relating to digital talent, skilled production, and operational managers may be three times as difficult to fill in the next three years.While this all may sound a little gloomy, a brighter outlook shines in the communities, companies, and educational institutions that are facing these challenges head-on with solutions that blend a mix of innovative, practical, and creative thinking.
Connecting the Community
Midlothian, Texas, is one community making workforce development a top priority.
This southern Dallas-Fort Worth suburban jewel — population 38,000 and rising — is home to a solid base of manufacturing companies, explosive housing growth, a progressive school district, and a steady flow of newcomers, including tech giant Google, Methodist Health System, and others.
To ensure that Midlothian remains equipped to meet current and future workplace demands, the city is engaging in critical conversations, collaborating with educational partners, and fostering synergistic relationships within the business community.
For the past several years, Larry Barnett, president and CEO of Midlothian Economic Development, has helped provide Midlothian’s businesses with a platform to not only voice their workforce concerns, but also connect with educational leaders.
Through breakfasts with Midlothian ISD counselors, luncheons, visits with Navarro College and Tarleton State University campus leaders in Midlothian, and tours of Texas State Technical College’s (TSTC) North Texas campus in nearby Red Oak, Barnett is helping to unite local companies with area school officials and colleges.
Gerdau Long Steel N.A., located just outside Midlothian’s RailPort Business Park, exemplifies how these connections are translating into real-world solutions.
Fueling a Talent Pipeline
Like most companies in the steel industry, Brazil-based Gerdau has faced challenges in finding the skilled talent it needs to keep operations running efficiently.
“There is a growing resource gap in skilled trades across the U.S., and in a booming area like Dallas-Fort Worth, that gap is becoming even more challenging,” said Ryan Hube, Gerdau human resources manager in Midlothian.
With roughly 950 employees, Gerdau’s Midlothian plant depends on employees with highly specialized, technical knowledge to run sophisticated equipment. Employees skilled in industrial maintenance are particularly critical.
While North Texas’ labor market is robust, competition for top talent still exists, and Gerdau has been aggressive in its efforts to find, retain, and elevate its workforce. The company has been addressing its workforce training needs through an apprenticeship program and customized job training secured through a 2016 Skills Development Fund grant and TSTC.
Gerdau initially connected with TSTC in 2015 when it sent 13 of its employees for training, and the 2016 grant made it possible to train an additional 189 employees through TSTC. Training has encompassed focused instruction on hydraulics, lubrication principles, electrical troubleshooting and motor controls, mechanical crane inspections, and bearings.
Customization is Key
As the only state-supported, multiple-campus technical college in Texas, TSTC says it emphasizes “learning by thinking and doing.”
With a statewide role and mission across 10 campuses, TSTC is helping Texas meet the high-tech challenges of today’s global economy through real-world education in partnership with business and industry, government agencies, and other educational institutions.
Much of TSTC’s intrinsic value lies in its ability to customize flexible training options for companies. Gerdau’s partnership with TSTC, for example, revolves around the company’s operational needs as well as its desire to help further Gerdau employees’ education and training.
For the past four years, more than 40 Gerdau employees from various melt shop, logistics, rolling mill, and quality control positions have been pursuing their associate degree in industrial maintenance with electrical specialization through the program.
“Normally, this would be a two-year program, but, through Gerdau, it’s three and a half years for employees because they are also working full time,” said Hube.
He said 10 to 12 employees are accepted into the program each year, and they attend class one day a week at TSTC through a customized schedule.
Hube said that the program has been good for employee retention and morale, and that four years into the partnership with TSTC, Gerdau is in a good place with its maintenance positions.
“We are not fully staffed, but it’s very sustainable,” explained Hube.
A Two-Way Street
The relationship between Gerdau and TSTC is mutually beneficial as the steel company pledged in 2018 to donate over $10,000 for scholarships to Midlothian ISD students to attend TSTC.
For the first year, Gerdau pledged $3,000, which will be matched by The TSTC Foundation, to provide six $1,000 scholarships to students in the college’s Industrial Maintenance program. The second year will bring another $3,000 for first-year students, with at least $4,000 more for second-year scholarships.
“Encouraging today’s youth to enter into these programs will be instrumental in attracting them to careers at Gerdau and other domestic manufacturers,” said Hube. “We are confident that this scholarship is a great first step in attracting local talent to manufacturing in order to meet our future needs, while at the same time continuing as a partner for this community for years to come.”
Gerdau is one of a growing number of Midlothian companies contributing to the Midlothian Workforce Careers Scholarship Fund created through TSTC and Midlothian Economic Development.
Beyond the TSTC opportunities, Gerdau also offers tuition assistance to all its employees. Once accepted into Gerdau’s program, employees sign up for classes, pay up front, and upon completion with a minimum grade, they are reimbursed.
Tuition assistance is offered to all full-time Gerdau employees who wish to further their education in an industry-relevant program at an accredited university, according to Hube. Employees can pursue their master’s, bachelor’s, or associate degree through traditional or online learning options.
Partnering for the Future
No one can predict what the future holds for the global economy, but change is a given.
Communities actively engaged in supporting today’s employees and empowering tomorrow’s talent will likely enjoy a competitive edge when it comes to our shape-shifting future. In a world of emerging technologies, progressive partnerships between community, business, and educational entities will continue to be pillars of future prosperity.
Because people will always be at the heart of business. And ultimately, the smallest personal connections often make the biggest impacts.