Archived Story

Cass introducing students to manufacturing careers

Published 6:48pm Thursday, January 24, 2013

Cass County is teaming up with Lewis Cass Intermediate School District, Michigan Works!, Southwestern Michigan College and area manufacturers to introduce students to manufacturing careers and fill “quite a few” existing vacant jobs.

“I was in three plants (Wednesday), and we continue to hear ‘we have jobs available we can’t fill,’ ” Cindy LaGrow, county economic development director and interim Cassopolis village manager, said Thursday.

It’s a lament common to five growing county companies and another large employer interested in locating here if the labor force can meet its needs.

“Everybody’s got the same problem finding people,” Lance Lyons, president of Lyons Industries, said Thursday.

LaGrow and her partners’ message is manufacturing facilities are no longer dark, dirty, boring places to work.

Local manufacturers make an amazing array of everyday products using high-tech computerized equipment, including caulk, gun cleaner, cell-phone cases, water bottles, tables and foam padding.

“When I meet with manufacturers in the county, they are looking for qualified people who want to work,” LaGrow said. “Their biggest concern since meeting with companies from February of 2012 is the worker pipeline. We know that this process can take some time, so we are starting our exposure now with the students of Cass County schools. Our team presented at Edwardsburg High School on Jan. 9 to the eighth- to 12th-graders to introduce them to what today’s manufacturing looks like.”

The team will be at Marcellus Monday and Dowagiac March 28 as part of Career Day.

She expects Cassopolis to participate, too, but no date has been set.

“We are excited to see the response of students once they see what manufacturing means today,” LaGrow said.

“Through collaboration with the local high schools and SMC, Lewis Cass ISD has programs available to high school students that create the opportunity for students to enter the manufacturing field,” said Mikki Spagnoli, LCISD career and technical education director. “We are excited for these programs to grow in the future.”

“Manufacturing is the fabric that built our nation,” said Corey Carolla, Michigan Works! business and industry director. “Kids need to know it’s not dead. It’s very much alive and available to them right in their backyard. Training opportunities that are supported and designed by employers lead to great jobs in manufacturing right at home.”

“Programs such as Mechatronics Technology and Precision Machining Technology train individuals to fill many skilled positions in demand throughout Cass County and the nation. These unfilled positions are in high demand and good pay as well as excellent career paths for workers today and in the years to come. There are more open positions today than students enrolled in the programs at Southwestern Michigan College. Our graduates have multiple opportunities upon graduation to be in the career they desire. I receive calls from employers wanting graduates of the program, but most students nearing graduation have positions offered to them before graduation day,” said Mike McGowan, SMC mechatronics instructor.

Mechatronics is a design process combining mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, control engineering and computer engineering.

“Unemployment is too easy for people right now,” LaGrow said. Workers laid off from $25-an-hour recreational vehicle positions, for example, “still have the mindset” that starting over at a lower rate constitutes “slave wages,” when taking pride in having a job, exhibiting a good attitude, a willingness to learn and to fit into a new team could translate into a rapid rebound back to better pay.

“If you look at Michigan Works’ website, there are lots of jobs out there for machinists and welders,” LaGrow said. “There are great opportunities in Cass County right now if people take initiative and pull themselves up by their boot straps because (jobs) are out there.”

Recruiting at SMC’s Campus Bash added 80 to the Michigan Works! database.

“They have a phenomenal team over there” catering to businesses.

“We’re trying to do things differently” by building partnerships, she said.

Lyons hired 100 people to put on a second shift, pushing employment from 125 to 225 in a matter of a month because a new account with Lowe’s coincided with a rollout with Menard’s, which “put a huge strain on the organization.”

Lyons needed to turn out 9,000 bathtubs and a like amount of walls by early December for Lowe’s more than 1,700 stores, which is five tubs per store and one for display.

The plant on M-62 West hummed 24/6 to meet its deadline, but, while in Florida, Lyons realized there was no product present, learning a delay had pushed it back to Jan. 21, which dampened anticipated re-orders and reversed the hiring spurt.

However, Lyons said, he expects to add nine people because winter is the busy season when people decide to pursue home-improvement projects.

Last year’s mild winter with summer temperatures in March destroyed demand.

While Lyons works with Michigan Works!, he said they also experiment with signs out front and fliers posted in gas stations and restaurants.

Lyons, of Niles, said in 2012 his company hired 344 people, of whom 49 were still employed by Jan. 1.

“We hire 350 and keep 50, or one out of seven,” he said. “It’s so hard to find people for work that is brutally physically demanding” in suits and respirators. When ICG closed, only one employee applied to Lyons.

LaGrow said she might not have studied accounting had she been made fully aware of career opportunities growing up in Berrien County.

Her goal for 2013 is “broader business-to-business transactions,” so if a concern needs repairs or parts, it need not venture outside the immediate area.

“I don’t sleep much,” she said.




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