MEDC, Herman Miller target manufacturing perceptions


With Michigan’s rich heritage in manufacturing and a looming skilled-labor shortage, multiple organizations are working to address common misconceptions about the industry to attract new talent, connect with future generations and ensure its sustainability.

As part of its efforts to develop excitement and attract students to the manufacturing sector, Herman Miller participated in the national Manufacturing Day event by opening the doors of its facility at 855 E. Main Ave. in Zeeland last Wednesday to students and parents. The furniture designer and manufacturer provided a guided tour of its facilities, information on employment positions and career advancement opportunities.

Christina Penfield, human resource representative at Herman Miller, said it is the first year the company has participated in the national event and the intent is to introduce manufacturing to high school students so they have a better idea of their options.

“Some who don’t wish to go to college or who maybe want to go to college but not necessarily right away will have an idea of something else that they could do in the meantime in terms of employment,” said Penfield. “We (had) different stations that are set up explaining what the different job opportunities are within manufacturing, as well as development opportunities that we have to help get folks excited.”

Manufacturing Day — this year’s was Oct. 3 — encourages manufacturers across the country to open their doors and dispel common misperceptions about the field.

Amy Cell, senior vice president of talent enhancement at the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said addressing the need for talented workers in the manufacturing sector and altering perceptions of the industry is absolutely critical.

“Manufacturing is the bread and butter — and history — of Michigan. With many of the recent trends and changes across the globe, Michigan is well-positioned to gain new companies as they are looking to either expand their capacity or move into an area where there is a degree of talent,” said Cell. “What we are seeing when we are working with companies looking at expanding, the biggest issue they are looking at is talent.”

With a wide collaboration among industry partners, Cell said MEDC has been one of many on the team recognizing the importance of highlighting manufacturing and encouraging employers to host events similar to Manufacturing Day to engage the community.

“To get the word out to the community about their opportunities and what manufacturing is, and helping to shatter some of those beliefs that people have that might be holding them back from exploring a career in manufacturing,” explained Cell.

“We are thrilled with Herman Miller’s level of corporate responsibility in supporting the event and are excited to participate with them.”

Some preconceived notions about the industry draw upon industrial images dating to the 1930s and 1940s where manufacturing was thought to be unexciting and even dangerous, according to Cell.

“Some of the most common misconceptions are that it is dirty, it is unskilled, it is dead-end jobs, it’s not technology focused,” said Cell. “There is such a huge range of manufacturing careers, and we need people to go into those to be able to support current employers who are growing, as well as new employers who are thinking about coming to Michigan and will do so if we have the depth of talent they need.”

With Herman Miller’s focus on continuous improvement, Penfield said there is a lot of critical thinking and strategy incorporated into daily operations from employees, and it is not solely consisting of physical labor.

“There is a lot of strategy and thinking that goes into it and we take safety extremely seriously and have a great safety record,” said Penfield.

“I think another common misconception is when you get a job in manufacturing, you are on the line and that is where you stay your whole career. That is absolutely not true.”

As a recipient of a several-thousand-dollar grant from the state for machine-operating training, Herman Miller leveraged the funds to train employees with Level I and Level II blueprint reading courses, according to Penfield. Some of the other initiatives the company is implementing to create interest in the field include: the Bridge Program, which provides facilitator and supervisor development opportunities; tuition reimbursement for employees who decide to earn a college degree; and the Herman Miller Academy Program.

Affiliated with its Next Generation Workforce Plan, the Herman Miller Academy allows students in West Michigan to experience various career opportunities in manufacturing while gaining experience and skills. Launched in 2012, the program resulted in 16 of 20 students continuing a post-secondary education, with six of those students receiving a scholarship and employment at Herman Miller.

“It is kind of like a class, and they earn college credit for it and they get to job shadow different departments to explore what is really out there in terms of jobs,” said Penfield. “They also get work experience and they learn how to interview and network. It is a really great program.”

The successful business-education partnership sparked interest in creating the futurePREP Academy, which includes collaboration among the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, West Coast Chamber of Commerce, Lakeshore Advantage and roughly 15 local businesses.

Encouraging a working relationship between the business sector and education system is one of the methods MEDC uses to address the skilled worker need in the industry, according to Cell. One work-study initiative known as the Michigan Advanced Technician Training Program allows students to learn theoretical and practical skills in various fields while earning a salary, in exchange for a two-year commitment at the company.

“During that process, they are learning about the company and seeing the great opportunities that they have,” said Cell. “We are always encouraging employers to get engaged with education and come in to do speaking events for career days or host tours in their facilities. So there is kind of low-intensity and kind of high-intensity ways employers can get engaged on a regular basis year round to help increase the number of talented individuals going into manufacturing careers.”

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