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Employers say they need more skilled workers

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Some local employers admit they are dealing with a significant financial and logistical problem.

They can’t find enough skilled workers to hire in the area, which means they either have to turn down or delay business, hire headhunters to recruit candidates or pay a premium to out-of-state workers to fill the positions on a contract or temporary basis.

“The need that we all have in southeast New Mexico … is that we need to teach writing and we need to teach reading and we need to teach math, but do the students when they get out have an understanding of how they are using that in the workforce? I think there is that disconnect,” said Michael Moore, executive manager with Krumland Auto Group, which operates large dealerships in the area.

He said that his business has been working with the local schools for years on curriculum development as well as setting up internships, but the need still exists to create a greater number of students who will consider auto mechanics — or other dealership positions — viable and rewarding.

“A question that was asked at a meeting was, how many interns can you take? As many as you’ve got,” Moore said.

Moore was joined by other managers with Leprino Foods Co., Aersale Inc., Dean Baldwin Painting LP, Meridian, Rhoads Co. and other businesses who shared some of their successes and some of their frustrations trying to develop skilled and motivated employees during a Wednesday Career Technical Education Conference sponsored by the Roswell Independent School District and the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp.

The meeting was envisioned as a first step to enhance the many ongoing efforts to meet the specific needs of area employers, and it drew a large crowd to the school district’s administration building. In addition to employers, those attending included educators from the school district and from Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell; vocational trainers and recruiters with Job Corps, New Mexico Workforce Solutions and Boy Scouts of America; and city and county employees and elected officials.

As acknowledged by those in the room, the need for more skilled workers is not unique to Roswell.

A U.S. House of Representative Committee on Education and Workforce Training talked extensively in December 2017 about the need to reform education because of six million unfilled jobs in the U.S. labor market, a statistic the National Association of Colleges and Education argued did not accurately represent the actual number of long-term, unfilled jobs. That group wrote that, if the number of temporarily open jobs due to voluntary separations or layoffs or terminations is taken out, the true gap is closer to 700,000.

But to the employer facing the long-term skill-gap issues, finding ways to reach local students before they drop out of school or move out of the area is crucial. And what those at the meeting could agree on is that each geographic area has its own unique market segments and industry requirements, which mandate that educators and employers work closely together to reach youth about available opportunities and to develop skills that employers value, which ran the gamut from highly specialized industry training to general work readiness.

“I don’t have any illusions that you are going to develop people that are completely done for us,” said Rob Tuttrup, general manager of Leprino Foods, a multinational corporation producing mozzarella cheese and dairy by-products and the area’s largest private employer with more than 500 workers. “What I am really interested in is, can you help us filter out the ones with the aptitude, the interests and the ethic and then we are going to have to finish them.”

Tuttrup told the group that the local plant now has eight technical positions it needs to fill, from maintenance workers to forklift drivers.

He and others talked about the soft skills needed: critical thinking, communication skills, the willingness to show up to work for assigned shifts or having a desire to learn.

“We have mandatory drug testing,” said Tuttrup. “And right now I will tell you that 30 to 50 percent of the applicants that we have just for the general workers in the factory don’t pass the drug test. So one of the things you can do in the schools is to help them understand that really does matter and that really is important.”

Randy Phelps, general manager with the Roswell location of Aersale, which stores, dismantles and maintains commercial aircraft, said that his company needs people with highly specialized skills related to modern commercial aviation, training not offered by some of the existing Airframe and Powerplant educational programs.

“I know at your college you have an A&P school there, but as a suggestion, within that A&P school, is break off some of those individuals who can focus in on certain aspects of, especially, aircraft maintenance where it’s skill-specific, avionic technicians, sheet-metal technicians. These are the guys who are needed not just here in Roswell but all over the industry,” he said. He gave the example that he has 67 mechanics but only one sheet-metal worker, when he needs 10.

Doug Hamlin, general manager of the local operation of Dean Baldwin Painting, said the manual labor involved in the entry-level sanding and painting work often means that an applicant pool of 12 dwindles down to five by the time training is done. The company recently started a mentorship program to help train and keep new workers.

“I think a lot of times with young kids coming up things that would help us out is understanding what an aircraft is,” he said. “What is a flap? What is a wing? A lot of time they don’t know how to read drawings, engineering drawings.”

Rick Rhodes, owner of the construction business Rhodes Co., said they are losing workers to oilfield jobs and want to reach students about the viability of long-term jobs in the building industry.

“These are careers, not just temporary jobs, and they are good paying jobs,” he said, “And, on top of that, we will pay them while they learn their jobs. With the economy we have, we have not been faced with this situation.”

As next steps, employers were given contacts with the school district and the university to contact about educational program development or internships and apprenticeships. There also was discussion about holding career fairs, taking groups of students to visit local job sites and bringing employers into schools to meet with students.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.