Two years ago I wrote about what thought was an interesting problem: a lack of workers with the right kinds of skills for increasingly sophisticated manufacturing systems. I'd never think this would still be a problem in our current economy, with its nearly double-digit unemployment rate. Plenty of workers who have lost jobs could be trained in these skills, right? Apparently not, based on a piece in The Wall Street Journal.
The article details employers' problems finding folks to work as machinists, toolmakers and other specialized industrial positions. It's a growing problem felt acutely in such industries as automotive and aircraft suppliers, according to the article. While global competition keeps wages down, they are trying to recruit employees with a hard-to-find combination of math skills, intuition and stamina.
At Illinois-based Mechanical Devices, which supplies parts for construction gear to manufacturers such as Caterpillar Inc., one of the company's owners says he has been trying to fill $13-an-hour machinist jobs since early this year. He believes the company could immediately boost sales by as much as 20 percent if it could find the 40 workers it needs. After visits to job fairs failed to yield recruits, the company created a 10-week training program to train its own machinists. Sixteen of the inaugural group of 24 trainees graduated the program.
The company executive faults extensions of unemployment benefits to 99 weeks, which he says make people far pickier about jobs they are willing to take. But long-term jobless benefits are just one factor and probably not even a major one. Other factors mentioned in the article include an increase in companies hiring temporary labor to better control their own costs and workers unwilling to relocate due to mortgages and other debts that make them less mobile.
While it's hard to fault companies for trying to keep their costs down, their decisions to offshore some aspects of their operations have made people understandably less interested in pursuing those jobs. Relying on temporary labor can have the same kind of chilling effect, since it's unrealistic to expect people to work as temps with no assistance from employers in covering health care, child care and other expenses.
It's obvious there's no easy answer here. Companies may have to get more creative, perhaps by partnering with community colleges to help fill their job pipelines, an approach I've written about before. Community colleges seem like a logical partner. While a high school education alone likely won't develop the kinds of skills needed to work with sophisticated equipment, a four-year college degree doesn't really seem necessary -- and is getting more and more expensive.The situation could get worse before it gets better, if U.S. companies trying to beef up their onshore operations find they don't have the workers to staff them.