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Addressing northern Mich. worker shortages is a complicated puzzle

Sheets of veneer on its way to be clipped and grated. Photo: Tyler Thompson
Tyler Thompson
IPR News
Sheets of veneer on their way to be clipped and graded. (Photo: Tyler Thompson/IPR News)

A new career and technical education center in Petoskey is meant to help with a skilled labor shortage in northern Michigan.

Some manufacturers say it’s just one piece in a much bigger puzzle.

Manthei Wood Products is just west of Petoskey. The shop is housed in green industrial buildings. Inside, machines and conveyor belts are arranged almost like a maze.

“The logs go through our ring de-barker and then the ends are cut off and checked for metal," said Brenda Byers, the company's human resources and public relations manager. "They’ve actually found bullets, some are really old."

Workers are making veneer out of Michigan maple hardwood. Once they’ve taken the bark off and made sure there’s no metal inside, the logs are dried and peeled into huge sheets, like an enormous paper towel.

Then the sheets are clipped and smoothed out before they’re sold to a buyer. Leftovers, like log scrap, are transformed into a dyed mulch and log cores are sent over to Manthei Construction.

It’s demanding work. And it takes a skilled workforce to get it done.

Photo: Tyler Thompson
Big sheets of veneer are stacked inside Manthei Wood Products plant in Petoskey. (Photo: Tyler Thompson/IPR News)

Manthei Wood Products employs about 140 people. The workforce is a mixture of men and women of all different ages, with some of the work done with help from computers and machinery.

But most of it is by hand.

“There are only a handful of veneer manufacturers in the country," Byers said. "So a lot of it is on the job training."


Manthei Wood hires anyone with any kind of manufacturing experience and those with computerized manufacturing training. The company also employs engineers, welders and electricians and among others.

Right now, the company is fully staffed, but Byers said that it hasn’t been easy. Second shift at the company runs from 3:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.

"I mean, that's a tough shift," she said. "So that’s our largest turnover."

The average stay for a worker at Manthei Wood Products is about six years.

But it’s a different story over at the company’s separate construction business, near Charlevoix. They have about 100 workers and they’re short-staffed.

They need commercially licensed drivers, laborers and heavy equipment operators.

“And unfortunately, in northern Michigan, there just isn’t any kind of training or any kind of certifications that are really available to get people the education they need, and the skill that they need, to be able to come into those roles prepared,” said human resource and payroll manager Shauna Sutton.

Sutton said they need to fill these positions before their busy season picks up in the spring and summer.

And this isn’t happening just in Petoskey, but across the country.


A 2022 study from The Associated General Contractors of America surveyed more than 1,266 construction firms and found that 91% of those firms are having trouble filling labor positions.

Reducing that scale to the Midwest shows that an overwhelming majority of firms have open positions and struggle to fill those positions.

Northern Michigan is still recovering from skilled labor shortages since the pandemic. Statewide numbers show positive trends in manufacturing and construction employment, but manufacturing jobs are not quite back to pre-pandemic levels.

That’s why the state of Michigan has committed $10 million dollars to North Central Michigan College to expand its Career and Technical Education Center, with the goal of developing and retaining skilled workers who will stay in the area.

“We certainly partner with manufacturing firms, the skilled trades in this region. They too have a need for talent," said NCMC president David Finley is president of the college. “There’s a growing industrial corridor between Boyne city and Boyne falls. So we want to help them again be globally competitive.”

Conceptual image of what will be the expanded Career and Technical Education Center at North Central Michigan College. Photo: North Central Michigan College
North Central Michigan College
A conceptual image of what will be the expanded Career and Technical Education Center at North Central Michigan College. (Photo: North Central Michigan College)


Officials from Manthei met with North Central Michigan College a month ago to brainstorm ideas for programs and training.

And they say the new career and tech ed center could help with the skilled labor shortage.

But Byers, with the wood products company, said there are other barriers for workers, too like housing and daycare.

“I mean some of our best workers are single moms and then they have to miss because next week is spring break and they don’t have enough paid time off so they’re taking unpaid, so that’s another challenge,” Byers said.

Shauna Sutton at Manthei Construction, knows that personally.

“I just lost childcare," she said. "And I have two school aged children and who I’m desperately looking for someone to watch them this summer so that way, i can come to work. It’s not just facing new individuals who want to move to our area, but those who already live here."

For now, both companies say they’re taking steps to attract workers and keep the ones they already have. They offer coaching, and counseling to help find housing and to help with any mental health needs. And they pay for training.

Officials at Manthei Wood Products also boosted entry level pay. It’s now between $16 and $18 an hour, with $3 more to second shift workers.

Similar efforts are happening over at Petoskey Plastics. Officials tell IPR they've reinforced their benefits package. They also say they offer more competitive wages and have introduced bonus pay opportunities.

A lack of affordable housing and high fuel costs for long distance commuters have added to staffing challenges.

Petoskey Plastics has worked with North Central Michigan College on training and certification programs for several decades. Officials are hopeful for the expanded education and tech center.

That variety of approaches will be key for businesses trying to keep people on the job. Whether it’s better pay, more housing, available childcare, or more training, from a brand new center in Petoskey.

Larger machinery in the distance de-barks logs with help from skilled laborers and computerized manufacturing software. Photo: Tyler Thompson
Larger machinery in the distance de-barks logs with help from skilled laborers and computerized manufacturing software. Photo: Tyler Thompson

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Tyler Thompson is a reporter at Interlochen Public Radio.