Help is Here

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2005

While many manufacturing companies in Sarasota and Manatee counties bemoan the slim pickings when searching for qualified industrial workers, Sun Hydraulics found a formula for hiring success by forging partnerships with local schools. "We are always looking for people and will always accept applications, even if we can't find a fit for a particular individual right away," says Kirsten Regal, who heads up human resources for the global maker of hydraulic cartridge valves and manifolds. "We don't necessarily look for workers with a lot of manufacturing experience. We look for a good work history and the ability and desire to learn. We'll provide the rest as long as the employee is willing."

Sun employs 600 people at its Sarasota headquarters, 550 of whom work directly in engineering and manufacturing. Many of these workers have been recruited from and trained by educational institutions locally and out of state. The company currently employs 15 University of South Florida engineering graduates and has about 60 employees who were educated in Manatee Technical Institute's precision machining program. Twenty employees are in the process of taking MTI training to further their skills. Sun also has internship programs with the Milwaukee School of Engineering and with Spokane Community College.

Luring workers with the promise of free training and competitive pay works, says Regal. Sun Hydraulics pays 100 percent of tuition and book costs for training. The company has partnered with MTI, which offers classes right on Sun Hydraulics' campus. Employees-in-training are taught advanced machining techniques for lathe and milling operations; precision finishing skills, including grinding, honing and lapping; and assembly and testing operations. Training can take two to five years, but the benefits are worthwhile. Manufacturing wages range from entry-level pay of $9.25 an hour to $25 an hour for experienced workers. The company offers a full range of benefits as well as a regular Monday to Thursday workweek, with plenty of opportunities to pick up overtime hours on Friday. Offering morning and evening shifts also allows employees to juggle schedules without losing the opportunity to continue their training.

According to Maura Howell, grants and marketing specialist at MTI, other manufacturers can and should use MTI in the same way. The technical institute recently designed a boat- and yacht-manufacturing curriculum for local boat makers, and other organizations, such as the Suncoast Workforce Board and the Economic Development Council of the Manatee County Chamber of Commerce, also help to create specialized training programs.

"MTI will work with employers to get a program off the ground," Howell says. "We may even already have a program that the employer is unaware of. We will help in any way we can by applying for grants, designing a curriculum or providing on-site training."

Howell encourages industry leaders to get involved with the local school systems and to join one of Manatee County's advisory councils formed in 2003 as a joint effort between the school district and the chamber of commerce to bring industry and education together. Today 4,000 Manatee County middle and high school students have the opportunity to interact with 165 business, industry and community volunteers. Volunteers speak to classes about their businesses or areas of expertise, provide job-shadowing opportunities for students and offer internships so students can get real-world experience to help them choose a career.

Sarasota County Technical Institute outreach and recruiting coordinator Harriett Laronge acknowledges the labor market is tight. "The reality is that there are more jobs in manufacturing than people who are willing to fill them," she says, noting that recruiting from outside the area can be a challenge given the area's high housing costs. But that's all the more reason to harvest employees who already reside here. And, she says, the most fertile recruiting ground is the local school system.

"An employer's best bet is to try to create a local workforce by taking students while they are still in training and offering them hands-on skills under an approved supervisor," she says. "SCTI will work with employers to make sure that the student receives training that meets state requirements."

Laronge encourages employers to enter into a cooperation agreement with SCTI. "The employer tells us what they need and we will assign a supervisor to the student. We'll even provide them with the tools they need while they're at the job. One of the biggest advantages we offer employers is our willingness to train employees to meet their needs."

Laronge also urges manufacturers to come in and speak to the students and says employers are welcome to recruit right from SCTI's campus. "The students are looking for good working conditions and a favorable salary range," she says. "If you can offer that, then you can work with the students and the schools to develop the workforce you need."

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