Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 1, 2012

NMC's new engineering degree could be a matchmaker


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---- — So when was the last time we heard this around northern Michigan — a company has steady, good-paying jobs available but some go begging?

In a county with an unemployment rate (in December) of 8.9 percent in a region with an 11.1 percent rate, how can that be?

The answer is simple, if discouraging. Clark Manufacturing was looking for machinists, but only 15 of the 50 people who applied made the cut. Cameron Fuller, the Traverse City company's vice president, said a lack of technical skills prevented many of them from landing a job.

Given the region's circumstances, that's almost criminal. At a time when Michigan (jobless rate 9 percent in December) and the rest of the rust belt Midwest is slowly crawling out of its 10-year recession, a local firm trying to grow can't find enough local folks to fill its ranks.

There is good news, however.

Starting this fall, Northwestern Michigan College will offer an associate degree program 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 environmental testing, photonics, marine engineering or electronics engineering.

The specializations aren't by chance. Ed Bailey, director of NMC's technical division, said the U.S. Department of Labor predicts environmental testing to grow 30 percent by 2018 and the photonics, or laser, field by 10 percent.

Bailey said the new specializations will allow local students to take advantage of those opportunities. Clark Manufacturing's Fuller said the company needs people who can adapt to changing demands so it can respond to customers' needs.

The emphasis on training students to meet local labor demands is hardly new. NMC's M-TEC program, like others around the state, was intended to do just that. But as many of the small tool-and-die and machining firms that dotted northern Michigan — the ones everyone hoped would keep M-TEC busy — passed away as the auto industry imploded in the 1990s and 00s, so did demand for machinists to run manufacturing plants.

"The problem is people think that manufacturing is dead," Bailey said.

That's changing, however; firms like Clark and Traverse City's Century Inc., are looking for people who can do the specialized work they need.

Keith Blanke, a manufacturing engineer at Century Inc., said the industry needs trained workers.

"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."

With NMC as go-between, both manufacturing firms and would-be employees could find what they need.