Douglas County manufacturers struggle with finding right workforce
Special to the Tribune
Nevada continues to raise eyebrows for its record-shattering employment levels and total number of employers, but the state continues to struggle to fill jobs in the manufacturing and construction sectors, particularly in Northern Nevada.
Statewide employment in June of 2017 cracked 1.34 million, the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation’s Research and Analysis Bureau reports, while the number of employers rose to more than 68,200 — both record highs for the Silver State.
But manufacturing, one of the anchor industries in Douglas County, has yet to fully recover, DETR reports. While industry employment in many sectors now exceeds pre-recession figures, manufacturing employment has recovered only 89 percent of the pre-recession peak of 50,900 jobs. Although manufacturing employment is expected to exceed its pre-recession high, DETR notes, filling open positions remains a challenge for many Douglas County employers.
Vip Rubber and Plastic, which began operations in Douglas County in January of 2016, currently has 18 unfilled positions, said Plant Manager George Phillips Jr. The plant employs 60, and Vip Rubber and Plastic said it’s willing to train unskilled workers in operation of the large plastic extrusion machines that form the backbone of its operations in Douglas County.
Statewide, manufacturing companies employed 45,300 workers in June of this year. In the Carson City metropolitan statistical area, which includes Carson City and the Carson Valley, manufacturing employment in June of 2017 was 2,400 workers — a decline of 100 employees from January. However, the unemployment rate in Douglas County also declined during that six-month period from 5.3 percent to 4.4 percent.
Western Nevada College, like its counterpart in Reno, Truckee Meadows Community College, has several programs in place to train workers in the manufacturing and construction industries. But even if WNC, Truckee Meadows Community College and all high school trade programs were at full enrollment, they still could not train enough workers to satisfy employer demand in the manufacturing and construction sectors, said Georgia White, director of career and technical education for Western Nevada College.
Part of the problem, White said, is that in Nevada 48 percent of all jobs require some type of college education and professional certification. Today’s jobs in manufacturing are not the same as in past decades. Depending on the level of automation in a given facility, employers need highly trained employees rather than unskilled production workers.
“Essentially, a high school diploma is not enough,” White said. “Nearly half of all jobs in Nevada, and more than that in the country are in these middle-skill positions where employees need some training in college and (professional) credentials to fill that career or job path.”
Take FedEx as a prime example. When it opened its new ground delivery distribution center at Mustang east of Sparks, it needed employees with mechactronics skills because its sorting equipment is so automated, White said. Employees not only need to know how to operate the machinery, she notes, but also be able to predict when equipment might break down to prevent downtime.
“Manufacturing employment depends on the level of automation,” White said. “The more things are automated, the more sophisticated the equipment and the higher the skill level the company will need.”
Western Nevada College offers everything from a 10-credit job certification skills certificate to help new manufacturing workers start in positions slightly higher than the ground level to a 60-credit associate of applied science degree in mechatronics. The college also offers the rigorous Level-2 Siemens Certified Mechatronics System Associate certification, a requirement for certain regional manufacturing employers, including FedEx.
The A.A.S. degree prepares students for advanced manufacturing positions, as well as the Siemens certification. While routine manufacturing positions in Douglas County, Carson City and the Reno-Sparks area still form the basis of many companies’ operations, more and more organizations seek high-level employees that can think critically, communicate well and work as a part of a highly efficient team, White said.
“We include all those soft skills in all our coursework,” she said. “Rather than thinking of the stereotypical blue-collar worker, most what we are doing is preparing professionals and technicians. “We are not just turning out someone to do labor; hopefully they are contributing to the overall productivity and image of the organization as well.”
Western Nevada College also offers associate degrees in machine tooling, automated systems, general industrial and construction.
Construction employment in Nevada is not expected to return to unsustainable pre-recession highs, DETR reports. Industry employment in June 2006 was a record-high 146,400. In June 2017 employment was 84,700 – a 42-percent drop.
Western Nevada College’s construction training programs are aligned with the National Center for Construction Education and Research, which forms the basis for all classes offered at WNC. Programs range from the A.A.S. degree path to a nine-week accelerated gateway to construction program that culminates in a craft labor certification and OSHA 10 card. The 10-hour program developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides workers with key information on health and safety hazards they’ll encounter on the job and ways to avoid them.
High school students seeking exposure to the construction industry who attend WNC for a year and can earn as much as 24 college credits, along with several NCCER certifications and an OSHA 10 card, White said. Those credits are transferrable to the 60-credit A.A.S. degree program in construction.
“It will get them on the job and making some money above the entry level,” she said. “From there, we have had students go into formal apprenticeships where they are on track to becoming journeymen. Students gain technical building skills, and they also gain supervisory skills.”
WNC also offers a bachelor of applied science degree in construction management. That program, White notes, can help journeymen construction workers and others segue from field work to a management position in the construction industry.
“It’s the difference between a job and a career,” she said. “With credentials and college credits, degrees, and certifications, that puts an individual on a career track. If you are in construction and your body starts giving out, and you have got management experience, you can go that route and continue working in the industry through retirement.”