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Sullair Aims to Close the Skills Gap Through Collaboration, Community Outreach

MICHIGAN CITY, IN — “If you try to go at it alone, you may not realize as much success as working together to overcome a shared issue.”

That is how Stephanie Roberts summed up what has been an enduring lesson for both her company and others within the equipment manufacturing industry as they look to attract, acquire, and retain the workforce of tomorrow. And it is why Roberts’ employer, Michigan City, Indiana-based AEM member company Sullair, has sought to partner with other organizations and government entities to establish and develop initiatives designed to arm young people with the skills they need to build long-lasting and satisfying careers in the skilled trades.

“We have all of these young people with well-paying opportunities right in their backyard here [in northwest Indiana]. They may not know about them, or they just want to pursue a different career path,” said Roberts, who works as Sullair’s Director of Communications. “That motivated us as a company to establish relationships and partnerships at a local level and really try to combat this issue as a community.”

A First-of-Its-Kind Partnership
Over the course of the last several years, Sullair has established and maintained a collaborative partnership with Michigan City Schools, the Economic Development Corporation of Michigan City, Indiana (EDCMC), and compressor and vacuum manufacturers BOSS Industries and Dekker Technologies, one which led to the development of a first-of-its-kind Compressed Air Academy in 2018.

“Like other leaders of Michigan City-based companies can attest to, we are tasked with envisioning not only what tomorrow or the next year will hold for our companies — but we are entrusted with directing the future of our companies for five, 10, or even 15 years from now,” said Charlie Takeuchi, Sullair COO and Executive Vice President at the academy’s ribbon cutting and open house in 2018. “The future is rooted firmly in today.”

The partnership paid immediate dividends for Sullair and the surrounding community of LaPorte County, which is widely known as “the compressed air capitol of the world.” During the academy’s first full year in 2019-20, 45 students were enrolled, and interest in it has only grown since. According to Roberts, it is now roughly three times the size it was when it was first established. In addition, Sullair announced the hiring of its first two Michigan City High School Compressed Air Academy graduates this past summer.

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“This partnership is more than just a donation of equipment — it’s a deeper relationship that involves companies engaging with and mentoring our students,” said Dr. Barbara Eason-Watkins, Superintendent at Michigan City Area Schools. “It’s important to note this is a roadmap showing us all what is possible through the power of collaboration.”

Building Positive Perception
In 2019, the Compressed Air Academy was recognized by Hitachi Global as a recipient of the company’s Inspiration of the Year Global Award. In addition, the Compressed Air Academy was also recognized by the Indiana Award of Excellence Partnership Award from the Indiana Association of Career and Technical Education Districts and Governor’s Workforce Cabinet.

The success of the academy has helped key stakeholders in and around Michigan City, Indiana, build a positive perception of the job opportunities available in the skilled trades and drive interest in manufacturing toward young people who have not picked their career paths just yet.

“We hear all about the difficulty in attracting workers, and once you could just expect people to apply no matter how you ran your business,” Roberts said. “That’s really shifted, and employees have the upper hand. And we’re constantly working against a stigma of the trades and manufacturing being a dirty, dingy industry, then kids are getting automatically pushed to college. So, the earlier we can get involved, the better the results are going to be for us at Sullair.”

Additional Activities
Bolstered by its success in helping establish the Compressed Air Academy, and looking to double-down on its efforts to provide educational opportunities for young people in the area, Sullair eventually engaged Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana to help develop a new 10,000-square-foot manufacturing lab and pneumatic certification program.

“This really helps Ivy Tech train its workers for current and future workforce needs, and they’ll end up getting a certification before graduation,” Roberts said. “It’s just another step toward helping these students make an impact on the job, and hopefully at a company like ours.”

Collaborative Progress
Manufacturing will continue to evolve with time, and the needs of the companies in the industry will change with it. As a result, it is critical for organizations to be able to connect with the workforce of tomorrow, inspire them to consider a career as a skilled worker, and develop them into qualified employees. This requires people to come together to develop practical solutions for tackling the skills gap at the community level.

And, as older workers continue to retire from their positions in the manufacturing sector in greater numbers, recruitment, acquisition, and retention will continue to become priorities of greater importance for manufacturers. This is why Sullair has opted against going at workforce development activities alone and, in looking outward, the company has made measurable progress closing the skills gap in northwest Indiana by embracing a mindset centered on sharing advice and ideas with others, as well as promoting actionable best practices.

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“We’ve learned it’s so important to partner with others locally to kind of tag-team an initiative,” Roberts said. “We know everyone in the skilled trades is dealing with this particular issue right now, and so it made sense for us to work together with others in our community to find a solution, and I think we’ve been very successful in doing just that.”

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