LIMA — All automotive companies in the Greater Lima region may be experiencing a “skills gap,” but every company’s skills gap is different.
For Crown Equipment in New Bremen, it’s information technology.
“Think about where technology resides today that it didn’t 10, 15 years ago,” said vice president Randy Niekamp by phone from Crown’s global headquarters in New Bremen. “It’s in your car, it’s in your watch, it’s in our lift trucks. Those displays that you have in your car? Those displays are on fork lifts, too.”
Crown Equipment has significant hiring needs, due to a double-whammy of Baby Boomer retirements and tremendous growth in the demand for its products, Niekamp said. It accounted for nearly 200 open positions and more than half of all manufacturing vacancies in the second quarter of 2016, according to the Allen County Economic Development Alliance.
Mechatronic engineering — a combination of mechanical, electronic and software engineering — is expected to dominate future hiring at motor vehicle firms, according to Center for Automotive Research in Detroit, which surveyed the Big Three automakers for a 2008 report on future automotive workforce needs called “Beyond the Big Leave.”
One look at new car models tells the story. Autonomous features such as self-parking, autopilot systems, blind-spot monitoring and adaptive cruise controls are turning up in more cars. Dashboards are becoming interactive with Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto. And Volkswagon’s electric “microbus,” the I.D. Buzz, capable of traveling up to 270 miles per charge, was the hit of last January’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
“The industry, at breakneck speed, is developing new technologies, and existing research and development is tapped out. It’s spoken for,” said Bernard Swiecki, a researcher at the Center for Automotive Research in Detroit. “More responsibility is falling on regional operations” to do that R&D, he said, boosting the need for college-educated industrial engineers and software developers.
Grob Systems in Bluffton has noticed this. The company designs and builds entire production lines for Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Honda and Opal, then breaks them down, ships them to the auto companies’ own plants, installs them, and trains the workforce there to operate the system.
While Baby Boomer retirement is not an issue for the company — most of its employees are in their 30s and 40s, according to supervisors at Grob — growth is. The company’s business has grown, as more manufacturers have sought out its so-called “turnkey solutions,” and so has Grob’s workforce, from 44 in 1994 to 471 today.
To help find a workforce with the advanced knowledge and skills Grob needs, it’s retooled its apprenticeship program, providing successful applicants with a free two-year or four-year degree. Its most recent apprenticeship class had 29 participants, its largest ever, up from 18 the year before.
“I know a lot of manufacturing facilities have a lot of production line-style work, where somebody’s doing the same repetitive thing four, five 800 times a day,” said Mike Fuerst, lead training supervisor at Grob. “Nobody who works here does that.”
Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or Twitter, @lima_eddings.