Local economic developers and industrial employers are still focused on the need for middle-skill employees and training programs. Representatives for local industries spoke on the need to educate the upcoming workforce on the benefits of trade skills and locally-available manufacturing career paths last week as a part of the Denison Development Alliance’s Economic Development Summit.

For the past two years, economic developers have been devising plans to promote middle skills careers — professions that require some post-secondary training, but do not require a four-year degree. These initiatives have ranged from bridging the gap between employers and students to training programs to prepare them for future careers.

Mark Anderson, plant manager for Emerson Process Management, said the focus on manufacturing comes as manufacturing nationwide is experiencing a skills gap with baby boomers preparing to retire. Anderson said about 50 percent of his workforce are over the age of 40, with 21 percent over the age of 55.

“When they go away, it is always good to have 3.5 percent unemployment, but we have no one to replace them with,” Anderson said.

Over the past six months, Anderson said 14 employees have retired taking with them more than 400 combined years of experience in their fields that will not easily be replaced.

Champion Cooler Vice President of Manufacturing Brian Aspell said he started out as a tradesman prior to working his way up in the leadership of the company. Aspell became an electrician as a back up plan to a baseball career that ultimately did not pan out.

Over the next 15 years, Aspell said about 10,000 people are expected to retire each day. Locally, this has translated to manufacturing positions remaining vacant for about 40 days before they are filled, he said.

“The 450-ton press can’t be down for 40 days because I don’t have a mechanic,” he said. “This is why our industries are struggling.”

Aspell attributed the lack of a new generation of workers to the perception that young adults must go to college to find successful and lucrative careers. Instead, Aspell said educators should speak about what careers are available locally and encourage students to pursue those paths. He added that the problem with a blue-collar workforce is not simply local, but is being seen across the country.

“The region that solves that will be the region that explodes,” he said.

Anderson said representatives from Emerson and more than 25 other local employers ranging from manufacturing to health care met in order to determine what could be done to fill these openings. From these meetings, the middle-skills initiative was born, he said.

As a part of these initiatives, local school districts have partnered with Grayson College to offer classes in industrial maintenance and, more recently, advanced manufacturing. Through these programs, students are able to earn certification and college credit in these fields. Currently, there are 10 students enrolled in the advanced program with an additional 30 in a premanufacturing program.

Speaking on the advanced manufacturing program, Grayson College President Jeremy McMillen said the college will be building a $1.2 million addition to its Career Technical Center to house the program. This addition will be financed using the school’s reserve funds and will not require it to issue any additional debt, he said.

Workforce Solutions Texoma is also pursuing a $200,000 grant for additional equipment for this lab. The project is also being supported by the DDA and Sherman Economic Development Corp., who are both contributing $50,000 toward acquiring the grant funding, Anderson said.

While the focus of these outreach and education efforts have been on high school students initially, Anderson said these initiatives will expand to middle and elementary students. This comes as state requirements mandate that students must have a set career path by the time they start their freshman year.

“In high school, we are thinking about jobs,” Anderson said. “In middle school, we are thinking about careers and beyond. In elementary school, we just want to show you some cool things we do in manufacturing.”