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M-Powered: A Successful Sector Partnership for Workforce Training and Industry Competitiveness

“We are in the race of our lives for talent right now as manufacturers,” says Erick Ajax, owner of E.J. Ajax & Sons in Minneapolis, one of this country’s leading metal stamping companies. Finding, training, and retaining people to fill skilled manufacturing jobs is much more than a vexing problem to men and women like Ajax, it’s literally a matter of business survival. Figuring out the solution is crucial, not only for helping businesses succeed, but also understanding how workers can get and stay on a career path.

The challenge is simple in concept, complicated in execution. How do we help the manufacturing industry remain competitive? How do we move individuals, many with limited if any job experience, into a career path in this country’s manufacturing sector? Contrary to popular misconception, manufacturing jobs continue to offer a bright economic future for many employees. “Low-skilled jobs are on the decline. High-skilled, high wage jobs, those are where growth opportunities exist and where the talent shortage exists,” says Ajax.

To help provide answers, Minnesota’s Twin Cities area has become a laboratory for workforce development in the manufacturing sector, thanks to a sector project headed by a consortium of local business leaders: E.J. Ajax plus seven other local businesses – Perbix Machine, Morrissey, Marshall Manufacturing, John Deere, Thomas Engineering, Meier Tool, and Top Tool. They each serve on the project’s governing body and make program decisions. Indeed, after the project was up and running for several years, it was this group of business leaders who developed a proposal for and were awarded a grant by the state to further support the collaboration. Previously, similar state grants had gone to individual businesses in the community, not a consortium of businesses, as in this case.

The “M-Powered” Project brings together the local Precision Metalforming Association, Hennepin Technical College, and HIRED -- a local support service for individuals seeking jobs. HIRED acts as a partnership “convener,” or intermediary to coordinate and facilitate the decisions of the employers and their community partners. Since its inception in 2004, the Project partners have worked together to identify the priority challenges in the metalforming industry, and have leveraged their resources to address these challenges. Today, the Project offers job seekers and men and women already working and seeking advancement a two-phased training program that prepares them for careers in the metalforming manufacturing sector. Trainees take part in a 12-week industry-specific course at the technical college. They also receive career counseling, mentoring, and job placement assistance. The local metalforming employers participate in curriculum and program design, develop criteria for enrollment, and make sure that the number of students graduating from the program matches the current demand for new employees.

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