AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some Central Texas companies are taking pretty drastic measures to attract and retain workers.

Leaders in the manufacturing industry met this week to discuss their biggest challenges at the Austin Regional Manufacturers Association 2022 State of Manufacturing Conference & Expo.

Among their top concerns: a talent shortage.

“With all of the explosive growth in Austin, we have to be better than we’ve ever been before,” said Michelle Cooper, Applied Materials culture and inclusion vice president.

According to the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s data, nearly 100 companies have relocated or expanded in Austin so far this year.

The company makes capital equipment, the machines that make computer chips for companies like Samsung. Cooper said they’re also competing with companies like Samsung and Tesla for talent.

“Employees have a choice, and we want to be their preferred choice,” she said. To do that, the company is changing some job requirements.

“What are the actual education levels that we need for our jobs? And we’re bringing digital tools to bear on some of our roles that allow for less-skilled employees to do those jobs,” Cooper explained.

She said 40% of their workers have been hired in the last four years, and their workforce is an average 10 years younger than it used to be. With those changing demographics also come changing methods to retain workers.

“The old tradition of time and grade doesn’t really work for a lot of them,” Cooper said. “They want to be recognized for their contributions along the way. And so, we’re looking at innovative solutions to recognize people more often to upskill employees.”

She said partnering with traditional, four-year schools like The University of Texas at Austin is also not enough to meet their need.

“It’s time for us to leave those traditional talent pools, because there’s not enough talent coming out of those traditional pipelines that we’ve had in the past,” she said.

Cooper said that’s why they’re looking at two-year schools, too. Applied Materials partners with Austin Community College’s manufacturing program, a job pipeline to many local businesses, including Samsung, Tesla and NXP.

That’s exactly why Elias Martinez chose the program.

“They do make sure that they check the block on the different things that [the companies] want individuals to have,” said Martinez, who’s furthering his education after retiring from the military.

Carr Lane Manufacturing, a much smaller company than Applied Materials, is even moving its Austin plant to Elgin next summer.

“It’s getting increasingly challenging to find affordable living in the Travis County and Austin regional metro area. And that’s one of the reasons we’re relocating,” said Keri Westland, chief administrative officer at Carr.

The company makes industrial parts for different fields like agriculture and aerospace.

Westland said they’re also trying to look at opportunities for employees to move up within the company, moving seven last month alone. It’s part of navigating Austin’s growing manufacturing industry.

“Lots of companies coming into town that can provide business opportunities for manufacturers such as us,” Westland explained. “It’s just a quality of life and ease of living that we might have some challenges right now.”

All promising for Martinez, though, as he trades in his 22 years in the military for machines.

“[I] look forward to pursuing my education and getting into a new career field for me,” he said.

Ongoing supply chain issues

Another big focus at ARMA’s Expo was the continuing supply chain problems.

“The explosive growth in the chip market has meant that our demand is well above our ability to supply as well, with all the supply chain issues in the world,” Cooper said.

She said they are several quarters behind, and their backlog is growing, according to their latest investors report for Q3.

Cooper said they’re bringing in more supply chain professionals and qualifying new suppliers.

“Women-owned businesses, underrepresented, minority-owned businesses, we’re making that part of the qualification we’re searching for new suppliers,” she said.

In the latest investment call last month, CEO Gary Dickerson said industrywide efforts to localize and regionalize supply chains will also help.

“We expect demand to remain higher than supply for the next several quarters, and we are continuing to drive actions to close the gap,” Dickerson said.

The company hit record revenue of $6.52 billion even with a backlog.