Unions can help fill the void during labor shortage

Jan. 18, 2006
It is no secret that a labor shortage is on the horizon. Managing Editor Ken Schnepf writes that the unions will have ways to help fill the void.
Manufacturers are more often partnering with unions to help supply qualified workers and solve projected labor shortages. The unions have experience and are willing to work with manufacturers to develop innovative programs or implement those that have proven successful.Trent Tube, East Troy, Wis. has realized success by partnering with the United Steelworkers Union to solve its labor shortage problems. With 160 employees, Trent Tube manufactures welded stainless steel and high-alloy tubular products. Aircraft/aerospace, food and beverage, and pharmaceutical are some of the end users. Chris Odachowski, president of Trent, has seen order sizes decrease as well as facilities, which have been reduced from four to two locations. Unfortunately, he doesn’t see a lot of people interested in working in the steel industry.The company has a senior workforce, so people need to be trained to replace the retirees, he explains. About a year ago, Trent Tube and the union worked together to establish a setup team of four to five workers. They cut setup time for orders in half and, in turn, are paid a higher salary for their contributions. “It is similar to a pay-for-knowledge concept,” explains Odachowski. “We are looking for other areas in the plant to set up the same structure.”Additionally, the company actively looks for employees who can be cross-trained to have more knowledge in a variety of areas. Two interns from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater have been hired to work in process control as a quick way to learn the operations.The younger employees look for excitement in their jobs, good wages and a good company where they can work for a number of years, Odachowski says. The older employees get enthused when they can pass their knowledge to a younger person coming onto the job. Rather than having a large labor force in place, it is now more about planning and programs, he says. “We are listening to the people who run the equipment a lot more than we ever have and they are willing to share a lot more than they ever have, and I think that’s very important,” says Odachowski, president.Odachowski started working at Trent Tube 28 years ago as an engineer and has been president for five years. In November, the company reached a four-year contract agreement with the United Steelworkers that will last through June of 2010.“For the union to even agree to a contract six months before the current agreement expires means they are extremely concerned with economic conditions,” says Odachowski.The shortage of qualified employees that a vast majority of U.S. manufacturers are experiencing is taking an increasing toll on America’s ability to compete in the global economy, according to a survey report released November 22 by the National Association of Manufacturers, the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Consulting LLP.“More than 80% of manufacturers surveyed are experiencing an overall shortage of qualified workers that cuts across industry sectors,” reports Richard Kleinert of Deloitte. “The pain is most acute on the front line, where 90% report a moderate to severe shortage of qualified skilled production employees including machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors and technicians. Engineers and scientists also are in short supply, with 65% of respondents reporting current deficiencies.”The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 134 in Chicago has had a five-year apprenticeship program in place for decades. Participants train to be journeymen. Every two years, the union sends out notices about the program to newspapers, county organizations and schools, which garners a list of about 2,000 qualified applicants, explains Michael Fitzgerald, business manager and financial secretary of  the union.The diverse local union includes employees of factories, maintenance, construction, Cook County and universities. There are 4,000 manufacturing workers in the local union, says Fitzgerald. The idea is to attract the best, most qualified applicants. The apprentices work a paid job, get paid for nine weeks of schooling, return to their jobs and can get additional education by attending evening seminars.The union also has three community service representatives who visit area high schools to meet with students and conduct job fairs. While these programs are for the union’s construction workers, Fitzgerald says similar programs could be developed for manufacturing jobs, if desired.“We’d be happy to work with anyone in any way we could help, says Fitzgerald.These are just two examples of successful partnerships with unions that solve labor shortage problems.

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