MARINETTE, Wis. (AP) - A defense contractor that's one of the region's largest employers is struggling to recruit recent high school graduates for some of the area's best-paying jobs.
Marinette Marine Corp. says it is holding open 40 positions in its training program for welders and other shipyard jobs, hoping to attract recent grads from the area around Marinette and nearby Menominee.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Sunday that the company has reached out to nine schools, but only seven recent graduates have applied for the training program, which begins in July. While the company prefers homegrown talent, it may widen its search.
A typical employee at the shipyard can earn $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Some earn more than $60,000 with overtime. Yet, like many companies, Marinette Marine is struggling to persuade people to enter the skilled trades, including welding, pipefitting and electrical work.
Each Navy littoral combat ship Marinette Marine makes takes about 40 months to build. The 10 ships under contract will keep the work going for nine to 12 years, and longer if Marinette wins additional ships in a new round of bids in 2016.
The company has added 600 jobs in the past 12 months, and now has 1,400 employees.
Right now, the future looks "pretty rosy for us," Marinette Marine President and CEO Charles Goddard said. "We can easily handle 100 or more hires out of high schools in a year."
But many students are attracted to other careers. The area has a low unemployment rate. And many parents are reluctant to encourage their children to enter the skilled trades because they've seen manufacturers cut jobs.
"It's a tough row to hoe because the bigger issue is with the parents," said another manufacturer, Mark Kaiser, president of Lindquist Machine Corp. in Green Bay.
Lindquist Machine offers its training program through Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, and its training center is just 300 feet from the shipyard gates in Marinette. It offers paid instruction in welding, shipfitting, pipefitting and electrical work, along with on-the-job training that pays about $12 an hour. Students can also earn credits toward a two-year degree.
Erik Bergh, superintendent of the Menominee School District, said Marinette Marine was very aggressive, "in a good way," about trying to provide opportunities to this year's graduates.
"They are really encouraging students to see that there are many roads in life, and that working for them would be a great experience," Bergh said.
"Manufacturing has been a big part of our area ever since the timber industry went away," he continued. "We have companies that have rebounded nicely from the recession and are now concerned about the availability of talent in terms of expansions and the aging workforce."
Justin Plansky of Menominee, Mich., is one of the seven applicants for the program.
He said he was the only one in his graduating class who took four years of mechanical shop classes.
"Some people think shop classes are boring, but they're really not," Plansky said. He wants to be a welder, but said he might someday become a high school shop teacher.
This fall, the company will reach out to high school juniors, trying to get them interested before they lock in their post-graduation plans.
Phillip Henslee, a Marinette Marine human resources manager, said the program will build on its success over time.
"This is a challenge," he said. "But it's a winnable challenge."