In his job as executive director of the Delaware Workforce Development Board, Bill Potter travels around the country to learn about different industries and how they are attracting talented people. In early August, he was
in Denver at a custom steel plant. He was amazed to see the versatility of its employees.
“One minute the workers were welding, and the next they were using a computer,” says Potter. “It was very sophisticated.”
As Potter thinks about the employment climate in Delaware for the construction and manufacturing industries, he sees job descriptions that include both complex skill sets and some of the more traditional duties performed by workers in those fields. To him, it’s important for those interested in getting jobs to understand that they must be flexible in their training, so that they can take the basics and move up into more advanced positions.
“Manufacturing is more than guys just smashing things and drilling things,” Potter says. “There’s a computerization and sophistication that you have to see to appreciate. They’re not just building birdhouses.”
That’s true of the construction field, too. More advanced design techniques require workers to adapt their training to more innovative uses of materials. As both construction and manufacturing go through transition stages, companies within the industries are looking for workers who can adjust.
Manufacturing: Be adaptable, bring ‘soft skills’
Bryan Horsey, the co-chair of the Delaware Manufacturing Association, talks about the changes in manufacturing throughout the state, where the demise of the Chrysler and GM plants in the last several years has focused Delaware more on specialized manufacturing.
“There is a transition from traditional methods to more advanced, highly skilled, high-tech manufacturing,” he says. “We’ve gone from having workers put one piece on a car every 10 seconds, and that’s the job, to needing individuals whose training and skills allow them to put 30 pieces on one complex machine.”
It’s important for students and workers to develop “hard” skills that will allow them to handle the job, but “soft” skills are also becoming more important for those looking for work, says Horsey. How you present yourself when applying for a job is vital. Being able to communicate and problem-solve is also important. Aptitude is necessary, but there is more to the equation now.
“Employers expect individuals to take a level of initiative that people didn’t have to take in the past,” Horsey says. “Companies have fewer people on staff, and they are doing more things. They expect the individuals they hire to meet challenges. When they encounter a problem on a line, are they going to shut the line down, or are they going to go a step further and ask, ‘Why did this happen, and what can I do to fix it?’”
Rustyn Stoops, director of the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership (DEMEP), echoes Horsey’s ideas about “soft skills”. For him, that means work ethic and a general mechanical aptitude. People may want to work in a specific manufacturing sector, but if they don’t want to put in the time or effort, they won’t be able to hold a position.
“The skill sets are workers’ value pieces, but connecting the skill sets with the manufacturer is the key,” Stoops says.
Construction: Skilled craftsmen are in demand
Construction jobs will grow at the third-highest rate (behind healthcare and financial services) between now and 2022, says Ed Capodanno, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Delaware. After the recession in 2007-08, unemployment in the industry reached 28 percent. That number is dropping now, as more large projects are announced, and a steady growth in construction work has prevailed since 2012.
Capodanno reports that skilled craftsmen, like electricians, plumbers, HVAC professionals, welders and ironworkers are in demand. But that doesn’t mean those are the only areas in the construction field with available jobs.
“We need to backfill people into all of the different trades,” Capodanno says. “There is a universal need. It has been difficult to find people. We’re not at a crisis, but if numbers don’t increase, we could get to that point in the next year. There are a lot of construction projects on the books.”
Capodanno also says “construction is not cyclical anymore,” a message to those who say construction jobs don’t provide year-round work. He says those who complete apprentice programs and gain certification in trades can enter the industry “debt free and able to provide for their families.” Those who get their “journeyman’s papers” after completing a full apprenticeship program can work anywhere in the country. “It’s like a college degree,”
he says. “It allows you to progress in the industry.”
And although it’s tough to work outside when the weather turns cold, Capodanno says that once a building’s walls are up, construction workers and tradespeople are inside, away from the elements.
When John McMahon, interim president of the Delaware Contractors Association, looks at what opportunities are available for those interested in entering the construction industry, he cites a need “across the board” but does emphasize that the most jobs are in the electrician, mechanical and bricklaying fields.
McMahon also believes that newcomers can be taught specific skills but that first-time applicants must be able to take direction and act on it, show up every day and be ready to work.
“The industry starts at 7-7:30 in the morning, and people work for eight hours,” McMahon says. “Sometimes you’re hot. Sometimes you’re cold. Sometimes you’re wet. Sometimes you’re dry.
“But it’s a great industry to be in. There is more upward mobility available than ever before. You can become a supervisor, a superintendent, a project manager, and if you have some ingenuity and entrepreneurship, you can become an owner.”
Schools, employers partner on advanced manufacturing skills
There are “hundreds of small manufacturing plants throughout the state,” says Horsey, so it’s impossible for prospective workers to know how to work all of their specialized equipment. Delaware’s technology incubators are producing companies that have created some extremely innovative, cutting-edge products. That means some new technologies are emerging through the production process. And as large and small companies look for workers, they need people with good skills foundations but also the flexibility to learn. Even older companies, like ILC Dover, which manufactures space suits and other products for the aerospace and pharmaceutical industries, are looking for non-traditional manufacturing workers.
“The biggest theme in the state is the switch to ‘advanced manufacturing,’” Horsey says. “We’ve seen a commitment from companies to inform educational institutions about what they want, and the schools are increasingly responsive. It’s a very good partnership.”
And it’s continuing to grow. As it does, Potter puts a challenge to the industry to recruit workers more creatively and to show them that there are plenty of good careers available in manufacturing.
“We need to impress upon parents, students and guidance counselors that all of these jobs have dignity,” Potter says. “Being a person who works on a computer in a factory is just as important as being someone who works on a computer in a lab.”