Published: February 21, 2012
The Washington Post traveled to western Michigan to report on the nascent recovery of manufacturing, held back by the lack of skilled workers. The shortage is by now a familiar story, but it bears repeating as a reminder that when U.S. education fails, the economy -- and Americans -- suffer the consequences.
[As] the 2012 presidential candidates roam the state offering ways to “bring the jobs back,” many manufacturers say that, in fact, the jobs are already here.
What’s missing are the skilled workers needed to fill them.
A metal-parts factory here has been searching since the fall for a machinist, an assembly team leader and a die-setter. Another plant is offering referral bonuses for a welder. And a company that makes molds for automakers has been trying for seven months to fill four spots on the second shift.
“Our guys have been working 60 to 70 hours a week, and they’re dead. They’re gone,” said Corey Carolla, vice president of operations at Mach Mold, a 40-man shop in Benton Harbor, Mich. “We need more people. The trouble is finding them.”
Post reporter Peter Whoriskey ably lays out the major factors behind the scaricity of trained workers: the rise of automation, requiring more technical knowledge, the demographic factor of retiring older workers, and the perceived glamourness of a factory job. He also reports that companies are responding with new approaches toward training, such as Siemens' alliance with Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina to develop a “mechatronics” program that leads to an associate's degree.
Elsewhere in the world of shortages ... and solutions:
Pioner Press, St. Paul, Minn., "Survey: More Minnesota factories having trouble finding skilled workers", reporting, "Finding qualified workers has become a bigger worry for Minnesota manufacturers, despite some 170,000 Minnesotans without jobs. An annual poll of manufacturing execs from across the state released today shows that 31 percent listed finding skilled workers as a major concern, more than double last year's 14 percent." The report is "The State of Manufacturing" conducted by Enterprise Minnesota and released today. (News release)
Des Moines Register, op-ed by Paul Gregoire, vice president with Fisher Controls in Marshalltown, Iowa, "Iowa View: Iowa must address widening shortage of skilled workers," highlighting the National Career Readiness Certificate and the National Association of Manufacturers-Endorsed Skills Certification System.
Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute picks up one legitimate angle from The Washington Post article, noting, "Severe Shortage of Skilled Factory Workers As Government Encourages Students to Pursue White-Collar Jobs."
Another angle, from USA Today, Jan. 21, "More workers moving for out-of-state jobs." The lack of mobility -- with dismal housing prices limiting people's ability to move -- might be one additional cause for employers' difficulties in recruiting skilled employees.
Big Sky Business Journal, "Manufacturing Looks for Modest Improvement": "Montana manufacturers were somewhat concerned about having to compete with the developing energy industry for skilled employees. Otherwise they anticipate little impact from energy development, except for the overall improvement it will bring to the economy in general."
North of the border, the energy boom also faces an worker shortage. From The Edmonton Journal, "Memo warns of skilled-worker shortage":
"For instance, it can take between five and seven years before a worker in the petroleum sector becomes fully proficient at their job," said the memo, obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin. "In addition, there is a demonstrated need for improved skills and knowledge among new recruits. For instance, only 53 per cent of the mining-sector workforce has participated in post-secondary education."
Which reminds your correspondent of something he wrote in May 1994 in his reporting days, as North Dakota's economy suffered from the collapse of oil prices down to $12 a barrel. From The Grand Forks Herald, "N.D. OIL WON’T RECOVER SOON COMBINATION OF FACTORS MEANS BUST MAY BE HERE FOR GOOD":
Unless a world crisis erupts — and continues — the industry’s prospects for revival slim.
Industry executives and experts hold out little hope of recreating the boom years of the early 1980s. Even a modest resurgence returning oil to a more important role in the state’s economy seems unlikely.
Even if an Armageddon closed off world supply, the domestic industry is ill-equipped to react quickly. A decade of decline meant oil field workers got out of the business, and petroleum engineers switched to other professions. The domestic industry lost 400,000 jobs in the past decade, an estimated 14,000 since November.
Glad to have been proved wrong. Maybe there's hope for training skilled workers, too.