BY JAMES RUSSELL
TRAVERSE CITY — More than 50 job-seekers applied for Clark Manufacturing machining posts last year, but only 15 made the cut.
Cameron Fuller, the Traverse City company's vice president, said a lack of technical skills prevented many would-be machine operators from getting the job.
"It's tough to find people. It has been since day one, and I've been here for 25 years," Fuller said. "If you want to make a career in this business you need to develop those skills — even just to get your foot in the door."
Fuller hopes a new Northwestern Michigan College engineering technology degree will improve the applicant pool. Starting this fall, the college will offer an associate degree in engineering technology to respond to the technical worker shortage.
The curriculum will be built around existing NMC classes, with a core of science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses. Students will specialize in one of four technology fields: environmental testing, photonics, marine or electronics engineering.
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts the environmental testing industry will grow by 30 percent by 2018. The photonics, or laser, field is expected to grow by 10 percent. The new specializations will allow local students to take advantage of those opportunities, said Ed Bailey, director of NMC's technical division.
"Employers are looking for people with experience in environmental testing, or photonics and lasers, and they can't find any of these people for their organizations," he said. "The problem is people think that manufacturing is dead. Parents typically don't encourage their kids to pursue manufacturing. They have this image of a poor, unemployed auto worker, but that's really not what's going on."
Fuller said 2011 was busy for Clark Manufacturing and expects another strong year. The company produces machine parts for customers, ranging from oil and natural gas companies to medical equipment makers. The variety protects the company from being tied to the ups and downs of a particular field, like the auto industry.
"We're not doing tens of thousands of pieces. We're making 10 pieces of that, and then 50 pieces of that for different industries and different customers," Fuller said. "Our people have to have the knowledge and experience to be able to shift gears from running a medical part one shift, for example, and then the next shift running a natural gas compression part."
Keith Blanke is a manufacturing engineer at Traverse City's Century Inc. and studied at NMC eight years ago, thanks to his company's education reimbursement program. Blanke said fewer young people want to pursue a similar career path, even as product demand climbs from companies such as Century.
"Basically, the problem right now is finding actual operators," he said. "I think there's a lack of training, and a lack of interest in the next generation."