Jobs training strengthens U.P. workforce

Michigan State Roundup

Published July 1, 1995  | July 1995 issue

Upper Peninsula (U.P.) employment counselors and business people, along with the U.P.'s community colleges and universities, are working to meet the changing needs of employers and workers through a variety of state and federal job training programs.

The U.P. is experiencing a growing need to retrain people in manufacturing, and, according to Gwen Timmons, workforce development specialist with the Michigan Jobs Commission, the challenge lay largely in keeping workers abreast of changing technologies. Timmons cites welders and machinists who now often need computer and math skills to work with high-tech equipment.

Lake Shore Inc., a manufacturer of material handling equipment, such as winches and deck machinery for ships, was approached by Bay du Noc College in Escanaba to discuss a joint jobs training grant. "It was a time where government, private industry and the education sector produced positive results," says Peter Bilski, Lake Shore's director of human resources. A team of six to eight people from the state's Job Commission and other jobs programs, Bay du Noc College and the company worked together to secure the training grant.

The training curriculum is a tangible one for Lake Shore's workers, who work under a skill-based pay system that requires technical training for promotions. With about 350 employees at three plants, over the three years of the grant more than 200 have had some sort of training, Bilski says, and many employees have taken more than one course. Classes have been offered in basic and advanced blueprint reading, hydraulics, and occupational and advanced mathematics, to name a few. While some employees take in-plant classes on work time, others come to work at 4 or 5 a.m. so they can take time for classes later in the day, Bilski says.

Continuing education is not incidental to Lake Shore's operations, Bilski says. "It's very integral in employees getting higher salaries, and we're getting a more productive workforce." It's unusual to find plant floor workers that are required to have six or seven college courses to advance, Bilski says. He recounts a prospective customer's visit to the company's Iron River plant who was so impressed with the skill of the plant floor workforce that Lake Shore had an order in two weeks. "Prospective customers say, 'They're in the sticks, what do they know?' but they leave saying, 'what a great workforce.'" Bilski says.

Timmons says another example is the retraining of former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base employees. Through federal job retraining funds, those base workers are preparing to staff manufacturing operations relocating to the base site in Gwinn. In addition, the former Newberry State Hospital turned corrections facility and the expansion of a prison at Baraga are the cause of an accelerated corrections officer training program at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie.

Kathy Cobb