- Associated Press - Sunday, October 2, 2016

HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) - Walk into any manufacturer in Hastings, and chances are the factory is looking to fill several open, often high-paying, positions.

Thus is the struggle in a community like Hastings and state like Nebraska where unemployment rates are just above 3 percent. According to the Nebraska Department of Labor, preliminary figures for July show the unemployment rate for Nebraska to be 3.1 percent and the rate for Hastings 3.6 percent.

The downside of a low unemployment rate is a low availability of potential workers. Dave Rippe, executive director of Hastings Economic Development Corp., said for companies evaluating a community as a place to do business, it’s one of the first things they look at because they want to know what the immediate, available workforce looks like.

“In a lot of ways a low unemployment rate is a double-edged sword,” he said. “Certainly we appreciate the highly engaged work force we have here in Hastings.”

The Hastings Tribune (http://bit.ly/2dcUxnC ) reported about 50 local employers gathered Aug. 1 for a career fair the Hastings City Auditorium after the announced closure of the Bimbo Bakeries USA bakery in Hastings. There were more than 200 job vacancies among those employers, including Hastings HVAC.

Shawn Hartmann, vice president for Hastings HVAC, currently is looking for a handful of positions including fabricator and painting positions, which start at around $12 per hour.

There is also a sales and engineering position as well as a solid works drafter position available. The salaries for those are based on experience.

Any job vacancies, Hartmann said, affect the bottom line.

“It does directly affect us,” he said. “It affects our output. A lot of what we do is hands-on assembly, so if I’m missing a set of hands it brings me down and usually we have to work some overtime to make that up.”

Whitney Bumgarner, manufacturing coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, said when she talks to manufacturers across Nebraska, workforce is almost always the No. 1 concern.

“For the companies I’m talking to it means we have to start thinking differently about the future of the workforce within the manufacturing industry,” she said. “A lot of the work we’ve been doing together has really been building that education pipeline to feed it. It’s not a short-term solution, but it hopefully will really help these companies long-term. Hastings is already doing a phenomenal job of that. “

The Flowserve Corp.’s Hastings plant received a $125,000 Developing Youth Talent Initiative Grant from the state of Nebraska in 2015 as the lead business of a manufacturers pathways advisory team that was created in 2013 out of the Hastings Area Manufacturers Association, in collaboration with Hastings Public Schools and Central Community College-Hastings.

“We won that grant because of the work that’s been accomplished in Hastings over the last three-plus years,” Rippe said. “This is something we started laying groundwork for, so we were prepared and positioned when that grant was available and it showed.”

Hastings High School was also named the Nebraska Career Education Outstanding Secondary Program in 2015.

Public schools are going through a revision process to make sure schools are properly aligning industry and education.

Hastings Public Schools is facilitating a revisioning workshop next week.

“We need to make sure the education that’s being delivered here in Hastings aligns with the needs of our local employers,” Rippe said.

He said local public schools as well as post-secondary institutions have been great partners sticking to that path.

Career Pathways has a long-term focus on increasing the number of graduates from HPS’ skilled and technical sciences programs beginning with Hastings Middle School students.

Area business and industry helped the schools to acquire advanced mills, lathes, plasma cutters, and more in order to start advanced manufacturing training at the high school level.

He heard the same thing from other HAMA members.

Flowserve has nine positions open now.

Wilson said he followed up on a few leads from the Aug. 1 career fair, but hasn’t been successful yet.

Six of those vacant Flowserve jobs are direct labor positions in the machine shop or foundry, where the employee works directly with the product being made.

As well as positions in maintenance, engineering and storage, in which the person in charge of the product once it’s made.

Beginning wages are $12.50 to $18 per hour for the machine shop or foundry positions based on experience.

Maintenance employees make between $16 and $23 per hour.

Wilson said there is a project manager position available with a salary of around $60,000.

In addition to the new curriculum, machinery and equipment, education and industry have established a joint task force to identify next steps in educating Hastings‘ future workforce.

These students are critical-thinking, hands-on problem solvers.

“If you look across the state, Hastings is one of the communities leading the efforts by getting the curriculum relating to manufacturing all the way down into the middle school,” Bumgarner said. “With the recent award of the Youth Talent Initiative Grant kind of jump started your efforts even more. That’s the approach I think most companies are going to have to start taking, is a more active role in training that future generation.”

Bob Wilson, general manager for Flowserve in Hastings, said an aging workforce is his biggest concern as an employer. He estimates the average age for employees in his plant is older than 40, with at least 15 percent being at least 60 years old.

“That’s the key thing, that in the next several years we’re going to need 30 employees just to backfill the retirees, not counting any business growth,” he said.

He agrees developing Career Pathways is the solution.

“That’s kind of why I got involved in that in the first place,” he said. “I could see this demographic unfolding in my own plant.”

Bumgarner said focusing on manufacturing as a career option gets students excited.

“It’s not considered one of the glamorous industries, but there are really cool high skill, high wage, high demand, awesome things happening,” she said.

Creating an educational pipeline through Career Pathways works hand-in-hand with production goals for manufacturers like Hastings HVAC, Hartmann said.

“I’m really hoping we can start to see some benefits from that in the next year or two because obviously these are immediate positions, but we’re going to continue to grow our business,” he said. “Our goals are to quadruple the size and the output, so obviously I’m going to need more people. We’re a pretty hands-on assembly-based company.

“That’s why I’ve been promoting (Career Pathways) so much. A lot of what they’re teaching at the middle school, the high school and the technical school just in general, from a mechanical standpoint, is pretty much an aspect of every part of what we do here. A commercial manufacturer of HVAC equipment, when they actually get into final assembly they’re dealing with plumbing, electrical, wiring diagrams, blue print readings. They really have to be a diverse individual in the first place with some natural mechanical ability. The kids that get involved in that early on, by the time they graduate from even just high school are probably some people I can use if they get the right education.”

With 1,200 employees, Mary Lanning Healthcare is the community’s largest employer. The hospital currently has 45 job openings listed on its website.

There are a variety of jobs available, but the job with the largest number of vacancies is registered nurse.

Bruce Cutright, vice president of human resources for Mary Lanning Healthcare, said wages for registered nurses begin at more than $50,000.

Mary Lanning is working with other local organizations to develop a health care career pathways program educating middle school and high school students about the opportunities available in health care.

As someone with a long career in human resources, Cutright said he has never experienced a labor shortage like what the Hastings area is seeing now.

“I’d rather have that problem than laying people off but nevertheless it’s still a challenge,” he said.

Wilson said workforce has grown as a struggle for manufacturers over the last five or six years.

“People that are well qualified to take a job at my factory or any other factory are employed,” he said.

More often than not, new job applicants need on-the-job training.

“If we could get those people the training they need through the public school system as well as CCC it would help us out tremendously as well as the rest of manufacturers,” he said.

He wants to see 10 percent growth in the plant each year. Realistically, though, that growth is more like 5- to 8-percent growth.

“One of the things that’s holding us back from being able to grow our business is a qualified work force,” he said. “Not that the people I have aren’t qualified; they are. But if I could bring people in that were ready and trained to do what I need them to do it would definitely increase my productivity because I wouldn’t have that long learning curve.”

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Information from: Hastings Tribune, http://www.hastingstribune.com

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