July 2010- Despite the high rate of unemployment in the United States, many manufacturing companies are finding it difficult to fill vacant positions because few available workers meet the skill levels necessary for the jobs. A number of factors, including increased automation and an emphasis on college or university over vocational programs in many schools, has contributed to the industry's hiring conundrum.
The unemployment rate was 9.5 percent in June, with the number of unemployed persons at 14.6 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, total employment is expected to increase by 15.3 million, or 10.1 percent, between 2008 and 2018, according to the bureau. In that time, job openings from replacement needs when a worker retires or otherwise vacates an occupation are projected to be more than double the number of openings due to economic growth.
U.S. manufacturing has undergone a shift, with automation and technology replacing many of the repetitive-skill jobs that have not moved already overseas, says John Gajewski, executive director of the advanced manufacturing, engineering and apprenticeship program at Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland. Typically, repetitive-skill workers are entry-level employees, and they learn about manufacturing processes on the job. Then they move on to more skilled jobs over time.
"As our skilled and more mature workforce begins to retire, their replacements are not there," says Gajewski. "Manufacturing processes have become more automated and computerized, and the workforce in general has not had the opportunity to be trained so their skills are current."
Indeed, materials handling typically is the starter job at a manufacturing company, but advancements in technology are replacing it, says Chris Kuehl, economic analyst for the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International , Rockford, Ill. With increased automation, "you are seeing whole waves of people being dropped from the manufacturing facility. That makes on-the-job training even harder because you don't have any of the entry-level people that can be at some point converted into something else."
The education problem is twofold: Young people are not being informed about manufacturing, and the existing workforce is lagging behind in its continuing education, says Gajewski. As the experienced workforce begins to retire, companies need to train their current crop of entry-level and mid-level employees to take on higher-skilled positions, he says.
Additionally, the manufacturing industry needs to find ways to reach junior high and high school students because few schools provide vocational training, says Gajewski. Many guidance counselors encourage students to go to colleges or universities, and they downplay the manufacturing sector. "The replacement entry-level workers are basically in about the eighth grade today," he says.
In the long term, industry companies should engage schools to increase the amount of information available to young people about manufacturing careers and recruit potential workers, says Kuehl. "A lot of kids don't want to go to college...[but] they don't know that there is an alternative," he says.
In the short term, companies must take on worker education themselves. Training is an expense many companies cut during the recession, but manufacturers "will be forced to reinstate what's now viewed as discretionary workforce training dollars in order to continue to operate an effective business," Gajewski says.
Some companies already emphasize education of workers onsite and of area young people, notes Gajewski. For example, Fredon Corp., Mentor, Ohio, has an active employee-training program, he says. Additionally, through its Cannons of Fredon program, Fredon invites students from area high schools and vocational schools to take part in an apprenticeship and training class at Fredon's facility. (Learn more about the Cannons of Fredon program here at FFJournal.net.) MM