Oconto County Addressing Worker Shortage

May 4, 2017

by John Muir


OCONTO, WI (WTAQ) - One local county has announced new efforts to address current and future shortages of skilled workers.

During a Monday morning event at Nercon Engineering and Manufacturing, the Oconto County Economic Development Corporation, or OCEDC, shared its talent development plan.

It calls for implementing a variety of initiatives including: the formation of a new business and education alliance, an increase in teacher-externship opportunities to enhance classroom learning, and installing career-focused software at county schools.

Efforts would establish a workforce development partnership between the OCEDC and the county's school districts to bolster the employment pipeline, increase student job shadowing opportunities, and partner with regional post-secondary schools to guide workers to Oconto County jobs.

On Monday, Wisconsin Public Service announced a $5,000 donation to fund the development plan.

WPS' Manager of Community and Economic Development Carol Karls says her company is impressed with what has been drafted and feels it is needed in Northeast Wisconsin.

"I don't think that I have talked to a manufacturer that isn't having an issue with finding talent at some level. Even our company is in need of more engineers and linemen."

Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Paul Erhfurth says they hope to raise another $20,000 from the private sector.

A $25,000 Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation grant was secured earlier this year, and Erhfurth is optimistic they're application for a $42,000 USDA grant will also be successful.

He notes the total needed to launch the program is around $62,000.

Erhfurth says a recent analysis estimated there will be 29,000 manufacturing and trade industry openings in the Green Bay and surrounding areas through the year 2024.

To fill those positions, Erhfurth notes students need more than just proficiency in math and science.

"The soft skills: ability to communicate, ability to work as a team, ability to lead."

Officials say they selected Nercon as the announcement site since it is one of the county's largest employers.

Nercon began operations in Oshkosh in 1976 and expanded to Oconto six years later.

It's corporate headquarters are in Neenah.

Nercon makes conveyor systems for the food, beverage, health, and beauty industries.

Operations Manager Dan Bickel says they average $30,000,000 in annual sales but expects that to grow by $9,000,000-$12,000,000 in the next five to seven years.

Bickel notes that would likely mean adding 25-40 workers.

He says 20-25 of those would be in Oconto, where roughly 85 people are employed.

There are currently no openings at Nercon's Oconto facility.

Bickel feels it's important for students to know the truth about the industry.

"The misception that manufacturing is a dirty or low paying job needs to be overturned."

He notes new employees typically earn an hourly salary that ranges from $13.50 to the low $20's.

However, Bickel says there are Nercon employees who make six figure salaries.

Drew Oswald is a turn technician and assembler for Nercon and encourages students to pursue manufacturing.

"I would say give it a chance. If you have a willingness to learn, and you're a good communicator, you can work with others: the sky's the limit."

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