- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

CLEVELAND — Michael Starr was laid off in mid-career from his factory job and found himself back in the classroom to upgrade his skills — for a new high-tech manufacturing environment struggling to find workers.

Mr. Starr, 45, was laid off Jan. 15 from his sheet-metal job in suburban Medina. He enrolled in a Lorain County Community College program to take courses in computers, math, machining, industrial blueprint reading, advanced computerized numerical controlled milling and job-search and study skills.

Working in industry today “is not like the old days: get a hammer and fix it,” Mr. Starr said.

The nation has shed 5 million manufacturing jobs in three decades, but higher-skilled factory jobs increasingly go unfilled as employers deal with applicants with poor reading and math abilities and a bad attitude about blue-collar work.

The National Association of Manufacturers says the skill shortages have hurt production and the ability to meet customer demands.

And the pattern is likely to persist as the nation shifts from old-style manufacturing to compete in a global economy.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in a report last year, predicted a continuing trend of lower-skilled jobs lost to foreign competition and automation and giving way to a smaller number of higher-skilled manufacturing jobs.

“There is a stereotype that manufacturing is a dead-end type of career, but that is totally opposite the truth,” said Ronald Bullock, who runs the family-owned Bison Gear and Engineering Corp. in St. Charles, Ill., outside Chicago.

The company, which makes electric motors for restaurant, medical and packaging equipment, has used a quick-response, custom-made system — it does the work fast and to detailed specifications for each job — to regain business lost to lower-wage Mexico and China.

Now the expanding company has trouble finding workers who can read and do the math required for entry-level $10-an-hour jobs with health care benefits and future raises.

The picture is similar across much of the nation’s industrial base, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting a consistent increase over three years in the rate of vacant manufacturing jobs, going from the 1.5 percent range to about 2.5 percent, or one in 40 jobs vacant.

The New York Fed report said the manufacturing share of the nation’s work force has dipped from 20 percent in 1979 to 11 percent, with new manufacturing openings increasingly requiring fewer workers but higher skills, including math, communications, computer use and team work.

In nearby Euclid, where factories line Interstate 90 for miles, hiring can be demanding for the employee-owned Marine Mechanical Corp., which makes electric devices for aircraft carriers and submarines.

“It is getting more and more difficult to find folks with the skill levels we desire,” said Mary Pat Salomone, president and CEO of the 250-employee company. The company is looking for experienced machinists and lathe operators for $20 an hour and benefits and began the year with 10 job openings.

The problem likely will worsen with baby boomer retirements. The Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET) organization in Cleveland estimated 800,000 manufacturing jobs in the Midwest will be vacated by retirements in the next six years.

Hiring problems include job seekers with poor education — sometimes high school graduates who can’t read at an eighth-grade level — an indifference to work issues such as showing up every day and the feeling that manufacturing is dirty work without a future.

The nation’s manufacturing job sector grew by 4.5 percent, on average, in 2006, while the U.S. economy expanded 3.1 percent, the National Association of Manufacturers said. U.S. manufacturing was helped by increased exports and more investment.

In a 2005 report, the association said skill shortages “are extremely broad and deep” and had affected 80 percent of the more than 800 companies it surveyed. The findings remain consistent for 2007, the group said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide