For Tom Erhart, entrepreneurship director for Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, the answer to well-paying jobs in Northern Michigan is manufacturing.
Within the last year, at least two manufacturing companies have opened their doors in Northern Michigan. Precision Edge Surgical Products opened its doors in Boyne City in February 2012. ACAT Global in Charlevoix also opened about a year ago. It manufactures parts for catalytic converters while Precision Edge makes surgical tools.
These companies need workers skilled in computer numeric control (CNC) machining. CNC machinists make tools, parts and other items, using computers to guide the production machines.
Precision Edge hopes to add 59 new jobs over the next two years — in fact, it has pledged to do that in order to fulfill a prospective grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
North Central Michigan College, over the coming weeks, will purchase a $350,000 mobile computer numeric control manufacturing lab with the hopes of training workers in the area to perform machining jobs. The college, Precision Edge and the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance have been working together to apply for a $350,000 grant through the Community Development Block grant in order to repay the college that money. If awarded the grant, Precision Edge will get a portion of the $350,000 each time it adds a new job over the two year period. It will then send the money on to North Central Michigan College.
“This project is modeled after a similar initiative in rural Wisconsin, where they have used this lab, but now have actually purchased a second mobile lab,” said Christine Hammond, dean of instruction at North Central Michigan College.
She said 42 percent of 2012’s incoming students indicated that they wanted an applied certificate or degree program, which would put them in the workforce directly after attaining an associate degree.
“The other element of this CNC mobile training lab is that we’re in discussions with Ferris State University and University of Michigan about leading our students into engineering degree programs,” said Hammond. “And what’s unique about our proposal is that we’re not only making (the lab) available to high school students at the college, but to the workforce as well.”
Buck Love, business liaison for Michigan Works! in Petoskey, says business owners need workers trained in this kind of machining.
“They’re really in short supply,” said Love, who covers Charlevoix and Emmet counties. “You go through any list of the manufacturers up here and those guys are like gold.”
Tom Nathe is the director of the Corporate and Community Education program at the college. The program assesses the needs not only of students but of the workforce as well. He referenced a survey performed by the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, which estimated that the expansion of 20 businesses will require 240 new employees over the next two years.
Nathe has been involved in the development of the mobile manufacturing lab, and says local high schools, manufacturers and the Charlevoix-Emmet County Intermediate School District have all expressed interest.
“There’s been a skilled labor shortage in the area of manufacturing for a long time,” he said. “There’s a misconception that manufacturing is what it used to be in the 1940s and 50s — dark, dingy, unsafe and dirty. Now, they’re very clean, wonderful places to work.”
And these manufacturers pay well. Love says he has employers paying between $14-17 per hour for entry-level positions and one paying $32 an hour.
The Economic Outlook report, which the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance put together with the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, compiled average wages by occupation in northwest Lower Peninsula between 2010-2015. It found computer-controlled machine tool operators made an average of $20.28 per hour.
While manufacturing jobs may provide some of the higher-paying jobs in the area, Northern Michigan’s job market is still largely made of the hospitality and service sector.
“It’s very true that there is a shortage of professional job opportunities in Northern Michigan. We get that. We see it. We do very well in (the health care profession) thanks to McLaren,” said Carlin Smith, president of the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce. “But how many marketing experts do we have? How many computer programmers? There are some, but it’s all fairly limited.”