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Manufacturing demand

Published May 31, 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.

Working in industry today "is not like the old days: get a hammer and fix it, " the 45-year-old said.

Starr was laid off Jan. 15 from his sheet-metal working job in suburban Medina. He has 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.

When he showed up in class, "I was terrified, (like) training an old dog new tricks, " he said.

The nation has shed 5-million manufacturing jobs in three decades, but higher-skill factory jobs like Starr's goal 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 sheds 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 hourly 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 hourly 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 organization in Cleveland estimated 800, 000 manufacturing jobs in the Midwest will be vacated by retirements in the next six years. Laid-off workers often lack the skills needed in newer, high-tech jobs.

[Last modified May 30, 2007, 21:43:48]

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