Friday | 20 April, 2012 | 1:53 pm

Manufacturing rallies

By Gretchen Salois

Regions in the U.S. show growth, gaps, as economy recovers

April 2012 Across the United States, states gradually are stabilizing as confidence in the marketplace improves, new investments are made and employers seek to fill empty positions. This general sentiment is applicable for the majority of regions throughout the country. “We see some confidence and some indicators, such as investments and hiring, but not at the levels that would imply everything is back on track,” says Brett Vassey, president and CEO of Virginia Manufacturers Association, Richmond, Va.

“It appears that laid-off workers looking for manufacturing jobs have three primary paths: trade related, professional and hourly,” Vassey says. Professional positions are serviced online, through placement services, company recruitment service and trade association resources, according to Vassey. Hourly workers are still recruited “via traditional and less-effective methods of recruitment,” including newspaper ads and workforce boards.

The Mid-Atlantic region has solidified itself as a manufacturing stronghold, with the state of Virginia employing 30,049 workers in its 1,195 establishments in the primary metal, fabricated metal product and machinery manufacturing industries, according to Vassey.

Different impacts
In the Southeast, states such as South Carolina are emerging as strongholds for the aerospace industry, with companies such as Boeing establishing fabrication plants. Working with nearly 80 companies in the area, Boeing is one example of jobs brought to the region in recent years, with plants opening as recently as 2011.

In Utah, the aerospace industry also is emerging as a stronghold for manufacturers as Boeing SLC is manufacturing the vertical tail section for the 787 Dreamliner there and will soon begin producing the horizontal stabilizers for the same, says Thomas Bingham, president, Utah Manufacturers Association, Salt Lake City.”

The Northwest may not be widely known for manufacturing, but Bingham says metals sector manufacturing jobs continue to grow. “Manufacturing in Utah is beginning to move ahead with noticeable intensity,” he says, adding after meeting with a group machine shop and foundry workers in mid-March, he found the shops are eager and in near-desperate need for machinists to handle their increased demand. “In fact, in Utah, the only sector that is not recovering is the manufacturing sector for the residential market. Others seem to be receiving more orders and are beginning to hire more help.

“Our No. 1 export in Utah is metals,” he continues. “Principally from Rio Tinto Kennecott and their copper, gold, silver and moly.”

In the Midwest’s “Old-line Rust Belt,” Howard Learner, executive director, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Chicago, says manufacturers are retooling to produce sophisticated equipment for the growing clean energy economy of the future. “This clean energy manufacturing resurgence will provide a new, growing market for specialized steel and other metal products.

“Growth in wind power development in the Midwest in the U.S. has triggered an accompanying growth in manufacturing,” Learner continues. “Installation and tech jobs are growing as a result of wind power development and supportive policies.”

With companies ranging in size, manufacturing gear boxes, wind equipment, as well as blades, “clean energy development is good for job development as well as the environment,” he says.

Stronger future
Overall, the outlook is positive. “We’re seeing manufacturing very methodically growing and getting stronger. People are making investments where before maybe they were sitting on the sidelines,” says Buckley Brinkman, executive director, Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, Madison, Wis. “Instead of waiting for this big change or home run, they’re going out and finding niches they can attack or small opportunities where they can make incremental investments, get stronger, nimbler, where they can grow their business.”

Vassey says machinery manufacturing is only less than 3 percent smaller than it was in 1990 and “considering the advances in automation, this is the bright spot in Virginia’s metals sector. Our ship-building industry also supports a great deal of Virginia’s fabricated metal product manufacturing. Therefore, this sector trends with shipbuilding, and we have done well there.”

Despite the growing need, every region is dealing with a shortage of qualified workers. Virginia recorded a gap of 11,751 skilled workers in its top 10 occupations in 2007, well before the recession. “There is a significant skill gap in Virginia to fill these positions,” Vassey says. “Only fabricated metal product manufacturing establishments have grown since 1990.”

Throughout the United States, jobs remain unfilled because workers do not have the right skills. “I think the biggest challenge that we face is the mismatch between skills and workers right now,” Brinkman says. “We have a 7 percent unemployment rate but there are some estimates as 5,000 manufacturing jobs that are open right now because we can’t find the right combination of skills.”

In Wisconsin, Brinkman says the outlook is bright for manufacturing, which may be indicative of an overall trend throughout the United States. “From 30 years of believing manufacturing was on its last leg, but now, we’re finding 70 percent of our jobs require a two-year degree or less,” Brinkman says. “We have 40,000 students in our technical schools that already have four-year degrees. We’re retooling people that couldn’t find a job their first time around.” MM


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