Economy
6:11 pm
Thu February 10, 2011

Manufacturers need more skilled workers

The national economy added 49,000 manufacturing jobs in January. That’s more new jobs than in health care, retail or any other major sector of the economy.

It’s good news for the Midwest, where thousands of manufacturing workers are expected to be hired over the next few years.

The number of students enrolled in manufacturing training and engineering courses is on the rise at two year colleges. But some employers say they still have a hard time finding qualified candidates.

Michigan Radio’s Changing Gears project is looking at the economic future of the Midwest.

Michelle Kanu filed this report from Cleveland:

On the first day of spring semester at Lakeland Community College and mechanical engineering professor Rich Basinski reviewed the syllabus in his Design and Manufacturing Capstone class, “this class is probably going to be a little bit different than most of the classes that you’ve taken, in that you guys are going to design something, make it, and prove that it works,” says Basinski.

Basinski runs his class like it’s a job-requiring his students to show up every day, call in if they’re going to be late, and work on projects in teams.

His class is not just about learning technology and computer skills. It’s teaching the basics of what it means to be an employee and today.

Employers say that means continuous learning, the ability to perform several jobs or tasks and knowing how to work together in teams.

Kathy Shibley, Director of Career Tech Education for the Ohio Department of Education, says today’s manufacturing environment means knowing more math, more science and engineering than ever before. She says the training not only prepares students for today’s jobs but for tomorrow’s as well:

"It’s very hard to distinguish the line between engineering and manufacturing because some of the content in each of those areas really overlaps, and when it comes to employment, they’re looking for people who have either-or both-of those types of skills," says Shibley.

So, community college professors say they get it.

And overseers of the state’s technical education programs say they get it.

And yet, nationally, manufacturing showed the largest gap between open positions and actual new hires in 2010 as employers continue to struggle to find the type of workers they want.

Chris Evans is a site manager at Plastipak, a bottle making company with about 300 workers, "Our typical entry level position is as a machine operator," says Evans.

Evans gave me a tour of the plant which is 30 miles south of Cleveland in Medina, “we have a lot of different machines that someone could get involved with. Some are a little bit more mechanical, some are a little bit more electronic related,” says Evans.

Evans says he has 10 entry level jobs open right now, and many of the applicants lack the right combination of math, problem solving, and professionalism skills to do the work:

“The quality of applicants has been very difficult for us over the last couple years. There are a lot of people out there looking for work, but not having the right background to do the kind of technical manufacturing work that we do. So it’s been a little more difficult than you might imagine given the current environment,” says Evans.

Judith Crocker hears this a lot. She’s the director of Education and Training at MAGNET, the Cleveland-based Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network.

Crocker says it’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing. Newly minted community college grads don’t have the work experience to succeed and many of those with work experience don’t have the technological flexibility they need:

“I think the schools’ challenge is churning out individuals who have a solid foundation in a lot of those areas, have had a chance to practice it in an internship, and then have the confidence to come into a business and know they’re still going to have to learn when they get the job,” says Crocker.

MAGNET’s mantra to manufacturers is “create internships” so college students can make the connection between classroom and workplace.

Chris Evans, the frustrated bottle-maker in Medina, has taken a step in that direction. He’s signed on to the Manufacturing Training Consortium, a program that trains dislocated workers and arms them with manufacturing industry certification.

And manufacturers in other parts of the Midwest have started innovative apprenticeships to address the problem, but that’s still more the exception than the rule.

By the way, the problem of finding appropriate talent goes far beyond manufacturing. Manpower, Incorporated, the giant match making firm that specializes in match-making between employers and workers, reports that last year one in seven employers across the board had trouble filling jobs.

The search for solutions continues.