Utah’s manufacturing industry is dispelling myths to attract workers

Watching a batch of cereal being made at the Post Consumer Brands plant in Tremonton can feel like a trip into a futuristic factory.

A visitor could witness machines either shredding wheat, turning flour into dough and then puffing it, cutting sheets of dough into squares or milling corn and rice and turning it into flakes. Automation is used in each step of turning basic grains into bagged or boxed cereal. Then, a robotic arm packages the cereal and places it into boxes on pallets ready to ship out to destinations in all 50 states.

“It makes us provide a more consistent product,” says Mark Suchan, the plant manager in Tremonton for Post Consumer Brands. “It helps us deliver a consistent quality and taste profile that our consumers are looking for. It also requires a more skilled worker. Our team members here have to have the skills to be able to operate highly automated pieces of equipment and troubleshoot those pieces of equipment.”

Technological advances have transformed manufacturing in Utah. Manufacturing jobs in the Beehive State do not fit with a stereotypical image of a row of blue-collar workers manning an assembly line in a darkened, dirty and cavernous plant, putting together a product by hand.

A thriving industry

Modern manufacturing plants in Utah are clean and well-lit and make good use of advanced technology to get the job done. There isn’t so much as a random rivet or bolt lying on the floor in most plants.

“They’ve all become more environmentally responsible as far as a working atmosphere,” Suchan says. “It’s cleaner. It’s brighter. It’s more inviting. Of course, more technology. It’s impressive with most manufacturers around the state just the amount of technology you see.”

It’s no secret that Utah is one place where manufacturers are definitely thriving. Total output from manufacturing was $17.24 billion in 2015, representing 11.72 percent of the total economic output in the state. Utah exported $11.64 billion in manufactured goods in 2016.

Nearly 20 percent of jobs in Utah stem from exporting manufactured goods. 126,900 employees in Utah worked in manufacturing by the end of 2016 with an average annual compensation of $65,712. Manufacturers employ 8.9 percent of the state’s workforce overall.

“One of the misconceptions in manufacturing is as we’ve become more technical, more advanced and more automated is that we’ve somehow taken away manufacturing jobs,” says Utah Manufacturing Association President Todd Bingham. “That’s really not the case. What happens is manufacturers become more efficient at producing their product. The ability for output goes up. Companies are meeting demand for more product and producing more items with automation.”

Education and automation

Manufacturing companies in Utah are doing well because they are doing their part to not only recruit new skilled employees, but also to elevate the skill level of their employees already in the fold.

Post Consumer Brands partners with Bridgerland Technical College in Logan to develop training and certification programs for its operators and maintenance technicians. The Tremonton plant offers different levels of certification and some programs can last as long as two years.

Boeing is another manufacturer that places an emphasis on continuing education. The aircraft giant has partnered with Utah Aerospace Pathways, a program that provides students with training in composites, tools, fastner assembly and machine technology. It involves 100 total hours of coursework and graduates are awarded an aerospace manufacturing certificate. Graduates of the Utah Aerospace Pathways program who work for Boeing or other UAP partners for at least one year are eligible for tuition reimbursement if they decide to seek additional training and education.

For Boeing, the additional education and training produces workers who are well versed in building complex components such as the 787-9 dreamliner horizontal stabilizers at its West Jordan plant or flight deck consoles in its plant near the Salt Lake City International Airport. Employees with enhanced skills, in turn, make it easier for Boeing to stay on the cutting edge with its products.

“The ability to problem solve and identify opportunities to improve things is something that has definitely changed,” says Laura Bogusch, Boeing Salt Lake general manager. “When you have specialized equipment in the mix or automation in the mix, it requires us to develop that problem-solving skill set on another level. It’s really exciting for people because it gets them engaged and involved in the work that they do.”

Boeing strikes a careful balance between automation and the human touch at its Utah plants. The machines are useful for tackling tasks that are ergonomically challenging or awkward for a person to do. They also fill a valuable role in taking over repetitive tasks that are hard to do at a consistent quality level if done by hand.

On the other hand, relying on flesh-and-blood workers is valuable where problem solving and creativity are required.

“We have to learn how to work with machines,” Bogusch says. “Some things they’re really great at and other things people are better at. Finding that balance between what’s the work we want a person to do (is important) because people are still better at making certain judgments than machines are.”

Automation and other technical advances allow costs to remain stable and fairly constant for Utah manufacturers. That’s critical to the growth of the industry because it allows wages to remain at a high level across the board, even amid periods of high inflation.

Eye opening

The current challenge for many Utah manufacturers is filling open positions. Millennial workers do not place as much value on manufacturing careers as previous generations because they see these careers as they appeared 30 to 40 years ago.

Once their eyes are opened and they see a modern manufacturing plant, Bingham believes younger generations entering Utah’s workforce will begin to see the possibilities of where a career in manufacturing can take them.

“If it can be made, we’re making it here in Utah,” Bingham says. “There’s just an amazing, broad array of companies with products that are produced here that a lot of people know nothing about.”