Building the future

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Oconto County launches initiative to develop and attract skilled workers

Times Herald Photo by Warren Bluhm

New talent development strategies can help Oconto County businesses find the workers they need to compete in today’s environment, Paul Ehrfurth, executive director of the Oconto County Economic Development Corp., said at a Monday news conference at Nercon Engineering and Manufacturing in Oconto.

Oconto County’s new strategy for attracting young people into manufacturing jobs could be as simple as introducing students to people like Drew Oswald.

A floor assembler at Nercon Engineering and Manufacturing Co. in Oconto, Oswald said before he joined Nercon he shared the common misconception that factories were grimy and dreary places.

“Manufacturing has this image as being dirty, undesirable and unappreciated,” the married father of two said Monday. “What I’ve seen in five years is that it gives you a fair wage and fair living.”

Nercon, which employs 85 workers in Oconto and another 50 in Neenah, served as the backdrop for Monday’s announcement of new efforts to attract and develop qualified employees for Oconto County manufacturers and other businesses.

The effort got a jump-start with a $5,000 contribution from Wisconsin Public Service Corp.

“Since we are a rural area, it’s difficult to recruit a lot of people from the outside, it’s difficult to recruit companies from the outside,” said Paul Ehrfurth, executive director of the Oconto County Economic Development Corp. “So what we concluded was it was in our best interest to do the best job that we could do to prepare our students for successful careers in manufacturing and other disciplines.”

The effort, created after a year of research and conversations with local business owners and educators, includes establishment of an Oconto County Business and Education Alliance, which has already met twice to discuss common issues and needs, Ehrfurth said.

OCEDC is also working with CESA 8 to build teacher “externships,” where a teacher comes into a company for a week and learns what that company is expecting in a workforce, he said.

Ehrfurth’s agency received a $25,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. in January as the public-sector half of the funding for the new initiative. The $5,000 WPS donation is the first major investment in the private-sector half.

Carol Karls, business and community development manager for WPS, said the utility hopes other organizations will follow its lead and get involved.

“By providing a significant donation to the OCEDC to meet its private-sector fundraising goal, we hope to soon see students and job seekers build relationships with county businesses and take advantage of new training resources,” Karls said.

Dan Bickel, operations manager for Nercon Engineering & Manufacturing, led visitors on a tour of the surprisingly quiet and clean Oconto factory.

Nercon builds conveyor systems for factories and warehouses that need to move parts and finished products from one place to another.

“Anything that you buy at your local grocery store likely came down one of our conveyor systems,” Bickel said as a video of soda bottles moving through a packing facility looped behind him.

The company hopes to grow its business by as much as 40 percent in coming years, and to do that it needs a quality, skilled, technical workforce, both in engineering and manufacturing, he said.

“We need to help educators produce graduates that have the employability and technical skills required to be successful in today’s manufacturing environment,” Bickel said.

With rapidly changing technology, business and industry needs to foster a culture of lifelong learning, he said. Getting students, their parents and educators to see what modern manufacturing looks like is a key.

“It helps parents understand that manufacturing has a lot of different opportunities, not just hands-on type work. There’s a lot of technical skills,” Bickel said. “And the pay scale in manufacturing is second to none.”

Oswald echoed those remarks.

“If you have a willingness to learn, you’re a good communicator, and you work well with others, the sky’s the limit,” he said.