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Wanted in Denver: Skilled workers

Companies like Leonard Automatics of Denver are having difficulty finding workers with the qualifications to operate their high-tech manufacturing equipment.

SARAH LOWERY
Staff Writer
It’s a problem that’s becoming more and more common: As the manufacturing industry looks to make a comeback of sorts, qualified workers are hard to find.
Jeff Frushtick, president and CEO of Leonard Automatics in Denver, is experiencing just this. After an article appeared in The Charlotte Observer earlier this month reporting that Frushtick was looking to hire specialized machinists, he told the Times-News that not one person has contacted him interested in a job, despite the current unemployment rate.
“That shouts very loudly the state of our economy,” he said.
Friends of his who also own businesses are having similar hiring problems.
“Manufacturing jobs are coming back, but there’s no skilled work force,” he stressed.
The article in The Observer covered a work force development roundtable discussion hosted by U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., in Matthews on Dec. 9.
During the discussion, Frushtick talked about the difficulty he has faced in trying to find workers who are qualified to run the machines he’s recently acquired.
Leonard Automatics designs, builds and ships equipment for the laundry and garment manufacturing industries, in addition to doing support work for other companies. It also manufactures steel parts and performs metal fabrication on-site in its Denver plant.
Some of the company’s many specialized products include a machine which folds towels that are placed flat on a type of conveyor belt and another which both steams garments and kills bed bugs.
Providing these types of services, however, requires high-tech equipment. And, for Frushtick, the problem is finding someone who is adept at running it.
He currently has 32 employees and is hoping to expand that number by about four to six people. By this time next year, he said the company could employ roughly 45 individuals. However, in seeking laser and press-brake operators, among other specialized positions, he has found himself frustrated with the lack of qualified applicants.
Frushtick has interviewed engineering graduates but finds that many are either untrained in the skills required or have more glamorous aspirations, such as shooting rocket ships to the moon. He added that there is a lack of understanding for what he believes should be basic skills and for how to go from “concept to end product.”
Their focus, he noted, is on the theoretical side rather than the practical, and he believes many kids have preconceived notions of what manufacturing entails, adding that it doesn’t make sense that he can’t find people who are excited about the opportunity given the state of the economy.
While his priority in hiring someone is the individual’s attitude and capacity to learn, he said there must be the potential for training. He recently hired someone on a contract basis to help train some of his employees on skills necessary to operate new machines.
“Manufacturing is not what it used to be in older days,” he stressed.
Leonard Automatics moved into its current facility in 2008, and Frushtick is quick to point out that the well-lit and clean plant contrasts with the common stereotype of manufacturing shops that are dirty, dark and depressing.
“We build stuff that touches people’s lives,” he said.
Frushtick believes the lack of skilled workers is primarily a result of a disconnect between the education system and industry, particularly in terms of communication. At Hagan’s roundtable discussion, he said representatives from local community colleges said there are opportunities available in which programs can be tailored to train students for the specified needs of local industries.
This was news to Frushtick, who said that, as a small-business owner, information doesn’t filter down to him. Additionally, as a small company, Leonard Automatics doesn’t have a human resources department to spend time actively searching for potential employees.
Though he said he will be meeting with one of the community college representatives to discuss customized education programs that could provide students with the skill set he requires, he believes there are other underlying issues to be dealt with.
For instance, he said high schools should let students know there are other options besides attending four-year universities. Some of the kids, he said, should be going to technical schools or even receiving training during high school.
“We can’t all be doctors, lawyers and accountants,” he noted.
He also wants local community colleges to reach out to surrounding industries to truly understand what they do.
Frushtick also expressed frustration with the discrepancy in the proportion of government aid provided to large and small companies. Instead, he said that loans from People’s Bank for new, automated equipment allowed Leonard Automatics to grow through the recession, including going from 17 to 32 employees since 2009.
While he’s stuck in a state of uncertainty regarding hiring, he hopes that will change soon, though he admits he’s starting to become jaded.
Nonetheless, if he can eventually connect with those individuals who he said, as kids, found it exciting to take Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys to make things, the future may look brighter.

Image courtesy of Contributed

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