Idaho needs to produce more technically adept workers for its $500 million gun and ammo manufacturing sector to expand.
The labor gap was the recurring theme of a Wednesday forum in Boise organized by the Idaho Firearm and Accessories Manufacturers' Association.
Jeff Sayer, director of the Idaho Department of Commerce, told 44 attendees at Boise State University that a representative of one Idaho manufacturer said the business would triple in size if it could hire more machinists and other laborers with the requisite skills.
"The firearms industry needs operators with these skills," Sayer said. "That's not happening. We need to fill that gap."
Most of the attendees were from economic development groups, state agencies and higher education. One of the two manufacturers represented was ammunition maker ATK Sporting Group, which operates in Lewiston and elsewhere across the nation.
A representative from Boise metal fabricator Metalcraft Inc., which makes gun parts, also attended. Representatives from both companies declined to comment.
To address the labor shortage, Sayer said Idaho is working with the College of Western Idaho to create programs that would produce technicians. Sayer said the programs would be steered by gun and ammo makers, much as Chobani helped the College of Southern Idaho tailor a new program to produce workers ready to step into jobs at its new Twin Falls yogurt plant.
"Working with CWI could make a template for colleges in other locations," Sayer said.
Idaho gun and ammo makers support more than 3,000 jobs, according to the association.
Doug Mattoon, executive director of Lewiston economic development group Valley Vision, said firearm and ammo manufacturing has become a critical industry in his region. In addition to ATK, five or six smaller manufacturers are all looking for skilled workers, he said.
"It's not just machinists. It's many skilled trades," Mattoon said. "Modern manufacturing requires a skill level that our systems aren't providing. It's a common theme I hear from all our manufacturers. They would add more employees if they could find people with the skills."
Cooper Kalisek, owner of Boise gun manufacturer Intacto Arms LLC, said he'd double his roster of eight employees if he could find the right workers. Kalisek said he could use a few skilled machinists, though he also needs employees with sales and accounting skills. He outsources most of the company's manufacturing.
Kalisek said an industry-specific program at CWI wouldn't address the root of the labor shortage: poor math and science education throughout the public education system.
"Yeah, the state can (facilitate) programs teaching skills, but will they have to go back and spend extra time bringing up math skill sets? I don't have five years to wait for the state to implement a training program to bring me skilled employees," he said.
Zach Kyle: 377-6464