Students from Bullitt County Area Technology Center and Jeffersontown High School toured GE plants this morning as local manufacturers try to combat a local worker shortage.

Students from Bullitt County Area Technology Center and Jeffersontown High School tour GE plants as local manufacturers try to combat worker shortage. | Photos by Boris Ladwig

A manufacturing worker shortage in Louisville and beyond is creating “major challenges” for businesses and hampering economic growth, a top-level General Electric executive said today.

Chip Blankenship, president and CEO of GE Appliances, said manufacturers in Louisville — and across Kentucky and the nation — are competing for the same shrinking pool of job applicants.

Chip Blankenship

Chip Blankenship

“We are in a crisis,” Blankenship said.

To help address the shortage, GE managers joined school leaders and Mayor Greg Fischer at GE’s campus to announce nearly $150,000 in grants to two local schools to help bolster their technical education capabilities.

About 30 students and educators from Bullitt County Area Technology Center and Jeffersontown High School toured GE’s dishwasher plant and learned about design and rapid prototyping.

The grants, from GE and Amatrol (a Jeffersonville firm focused on technical education) and new partnerships with local manufacturers will help the schools better prepare students for manufacturing careers, from machine operators to maintenance technicians and engineers — and help business find more qualified employees.

GE started manufacturing in Louisville in 1953. Today, its 900-acre campus includes five manufacturing plants that employ about 6,000 people who make household products including dishwashers, refrigerators and hot water heaters. Through the end of next year, GE will have invested about $1 billion and hired 3,000 employees in its Louisville facilities since 2011.

GE Appliances employees work in the company’s dishwasher plant, one of five on the local 900-acre campus, which employs about 6,000.

GE employees work in the company’s dishwasher plant.

But, GE leaders said, finding qualified workers has been difficult.

GE hires between 25 and 50 employees per month to replace retirees or people who get promoted or leave for other jobs. And although the company gets thousands of applicants, many do not meet the company’s minimum qualifications or expectations. More than half of the applicants are removed from consideration for reasons including a criminal record, a failed drug test or because they lack a high school diploma, said Bob Kissinger, chief manufacturing engineer.

Many others lack soft skills such as showing up on time or being able to work in a team.

Kissinger said that GE and other companies have to start telling students at an earlier age about the kinds of qualifications and skills they need in manufacturing.

To a certain extent, the industry also is battling an image problem. Many parents of today’s students do not want their kids to work in manufacturing, because they expect facilities to be dirty and the work to be repetitive and low-tech.

But, Kissinger said, parents have to understand that today’s high-tech manufacturing offers viable careers.

Partnerships with schools

Some local young adults are learning that first-hand: Sixteen recent high school graduates are working with seven local manufacturers to complete a two-year program through which they will earn a certification as Advanced Manufacturing Technicians. The students take classes for two days a week and work in local manufacturing facilities the rest of the week, earning about $25,000 a year.

Once they complete the program, they can get hired by GE to continue two more years of training, after which they can get hired as AMTs earning $17 an hour, or about $35,000 per year — without any student loans.

Paige Woods, who graduated from Bullitt County Area Technology Center this year, joined GE in August, primarily because the company made a convincing case for the career during a presentation at the school — and because the company is paying for her education.

Paige Woods

Paige Woods

Woods said she has enjoyed the work, though for now much of it involves observing GE’s technicians and familiarizing herself with the equipment.

“It’s been a very interesting experience,” the recent graduate said. “It’s definitely a lot of work.”

Chijioke Brewer, 17, who is studying in an engineering program at Jeffersontown High school, toured the GE facility today with fellow students to get a closer look at manufacturing work.

Brewer said he enjoyed the tour, seeing the interaction among the employees and figuring out how companies maximize productivity. The experiences will help him when he runs his business someday, he said.

The teen already has been accepted to Murray State and Purdue universities. He plans to study mechanical, electrical or chemical engineering.

Chijioke Brewer

Chijioke Brewer

Brewer knew from an early age that he wanted to be an engineer. He used to draw bridges as a child, and at age 6, he disassembled a washing machine. His family was getting a new one, so he figured he could use the old one to satisfy his curiosity. His parents soon forgave him — especially because he dismantled the new machine, rather than the old one.

Angela Binkley, principal at Bullitt County Area Technology Center, said the visits to local manufacturers provide students with new perspectives.

“It’s a life-changing opportunity,” she said.

GE spokeswoman Kim Freeman said the company’s partnerships with local schools help introduce students to manufacturing careers and give them insights into the realities of work in a manufacturing facility.

“This isn’t your grandfather’s factory,” she said. “This is high-tech stuff.”

Interested in a GE career? Find more information here.