MTU hosts summit on future electronics workforce

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Christopher Middlebrook, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Michigan Technological University, receives an award Wednesday for his efforts in educating the electronics manufacturing workforce. The award was presented at a summit on the future electronics workforce at Michigan Tech. 

HOUGHTON — As recent legislation has provided a boost to efforts to boost American electronics manufacturing, companies are facing another hurdle: finding workers.

About 50 people from government agencies including the Department of Defense, Michigan Technological University and Calumet Electronics met Wednesday for a leadership summit on building a sustainable workforce. 

Calumet Electronics, which recently opened a 45,000-square-foot expansion, still has about 25 open positions, said Todd Brassard, its vice president and chief operations officer. 

“The technologies that we’re being asked to build are getting more and more complex,” he said “In some cases, it’ll be the most complex technology being built anywhere in the country. And so we also have to prepare and increase skill and develop and get the buy-in and the commitment of our workforce to be able to do the greater challenges that are going to be asked of our company in the future.”

Activities Wednesday included a discussion about how legislators, the Department of Defense, academia, industry and the private sector can address those workforce challenges. It also included a tour of Calumet Electronics’ manufacturing facility.  

Upper Peninsula Michigan Works is trying to help companies connect with potential workers, as well as training opportunities for current or future employees, said CEO Bill Raymond. 

Even if every unemployed person in America found a job tomorrow, there would still be tens of millions of positions unfilled, Raymond said. The problem’s acute in the U.P., which has lost 20,000 workers over the past 20 years, he said. And it’s also coming as the number of graduates in Michigan is expected to decrease. 

“We’re trying to connect with colleges, four-year and two-year schools, and do some certificate training to find people who can take that next step, but may not know how to go about it,” he said. “And so that’s why we want to work with these other sectors to help them make those connections. Because I think the type of opportunity we have here today, and the things we’re talking about is long overdue.”

Marty Fittante, chief executive officer of Invest U.P., said the question is especially acute for advanced manufacturers. But it’s a version of the same things he’s hearing from all sectors.

Four foundational issues need to be solved for the area to attract workers, Fittante said: broadband, housing, regional air service and child care.

On the broadband front, AEG and Highline are investing $5 million for 5,000 miles of fiber in the U.P. 

By the start of October, Invest U.P. plans to announce some housing-based solutions, Fittante said. It is also exploring ideas for childcare. 

Invest U.P. received $15 million in the state budget, which it plans to use as “last in” dollars for lending to institutions. That money will be used to make projects less risky for both banks and developers, Fittante said. 

“We won’t look to make money on it, we’ll look to stand up developments,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the concept that we have will be that it’s sustainable, so that the money’s coming back to us under some given terms, but really favorable terms that we can then lend back out.”

After Wednesday’s group discussion, the morning session ended with the presentation of an award from the DOD’s Industrial Basement Analysis and Sustainment program to Christopher Middlebrook, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Michigan Tech. Middlebrook was recognized for his efforts to educate the next generation of electronics manufacturing workforce.



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