CMMA is model for state’s manufacturers

When Les Engel and a handful of other St. Cloud-area manufacturers got together one morning in 2008 to strategize about their “talent pipeline” problem, they had no idea how many area businesses would show up. “We were expecting 25 people,” says Engel, CEO of Engel Metallurgical in St. Cloud. “We got 105.”

That day, the Central Minnesota Manufacturing Association (CMMA) was born.

“We came together because we wanted to have a voice—in the community, in the schools, in St. Paul—to influence things we believe need to be changed,” Engel explains. CMMA’s motto says it all: “Today, growth and innovation can rarely be maximized by one company, one service organization, or even one industry going it alone.”

The organization is now a model of how our state’s manufacturers can join forces to advance their interests and those of their communities. It has a three-point strategy: manufacturing education, workforce development and legislative advocacy.

CMMA’s approximately 150 members range from Electrolux, which builds freezers in St. Cloud, to Bayer Interior Woods, a custom cabinet maker in Sauk Centre. Members also include bankers, attorneys, suppliers, and other Central Minnesotans interested in manufacturing.

CMMA holds monthly breakfast meetings at a local manufacturing facility. Every meeting features a speaker and a tour of the host company’s facility. (“Manufacturers love to see what other manufacturers are doing,” Engel says.) Speakers discuss topics like quality improvement, how to work with non-English speakers to ensure safety, and, of course, talent recruitment and development.

One of CMMA’s top priorities is to get member businesses to work together to meet their workforce challenges.

Early on, the group began the Minnesota Tour of Manufacturing—inspired by the real estate concept of the Parade of Homes. The program’s goal was to expose as many high school students as possible and their parents to manufacturing as a career.

“We were having trouble attracting young workers,” explains Engel. “Parents would discourage kids—telling them ‘it’s dark, dirty and dangerous and all the jobs have gone to China.’ We wanted kids and parents to see how different manufacturing is today.”

Since then, the Minnesota Tour of Manufacturing has taken off all over the state as part of the “Dream It. Do It.” initiative. This year, in the St. Cloud area, it will include a new incentive to drive student and parent attendance. Nine companies will open their doors over two weekends—September 30 and October 7. If kids bring their parents and get a paper stamped at all nine, their name will be placed in a drawing for a scholarship.

CMMA’s next big project is to assist businesses in the complex process of hiring high school students through Youth Apprenticeship. In this program, high school juniors and seniors can combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction, sometimes earning college credit as well.

When CMMA met to discuss the idea of recruiting high school kids last year, “the room was packed,” says Engel. “I asked how many knew about the high school apprenticeship program, and only five or six did. Then I asked how many would be interested, and almost every hand shot up.”

Employers are enthusiastic because students who are introduced to manufacturing in high school are more likely to choose it as a career. But the paperwork required can be daunting. “The need for schools, government and business to work together has made the process really tough,” according to Engel.

Now, CMMA is working with Wright Technical Center, a technical high school in Buffalo, to put together the tools necessary to facilitate the hiring of high school apprentices. The package will include all the forms and information employers need about insurance, mentors, and the rules and requirements the state has created—including the things kids can and cannot do.

CMMA plans to post the entire package on its web site. “Then we’ll lay it all out at a meeting,” says Engel. ‘Here’s how you get an apprentice.’” To date, CMMA has helped place two youth apprentices in Central Minnesota.

Going forward, CMMA hopes that businesses across Minnesota—including many in fields outside manufacturing—will use the youth apprenticeship tools it is now helping to prepare. The ultimate goal is to help our state’s economy to thrive, and to benefit the kids of Minnesota.