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Factory jobs requiring new skills go unfilled

Too many applicants are weak in reading and math, with bad attitudes about blue-collar work.

At Hayes High, student Alexander Story sits in the design lab. "There is a stereotype," one factory owner says, "that manufacturing is a dead-end type of career. But that is totally opposite the truth."
At Hayes High, student Alexander Story sits in the design lab. "There is a stereotype," one factory owner says, "that manufacturing is a dead-end type of career. But that is totally opposite the truth."Read more

CLEVELAND - Michael Starr was laid off in mid-career from his factory job, and found himself back in the classroom.

The goal was to upgrade his skills for a new high-tech manufacturing environment in which companies have been struggling to find workers.

It's "not like the old days: Get a hammer and fix it," Starr, 45, said.

After he was laid off Jan. 15 from his sheet-metalworking job in suburban Medina, Ohio, he 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.

"I was terrified, training an old dog new tricks," he said.

The nation has shed five million manufacturing jobs in the last three decades, but higher-skill factory jobs increasingly go unfilled as employers deal with applicants who have 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.

It's a pattern likely to persist as the nation sheds old-style manufacturing to compete in a global economy.

In a report last year, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York predicted a continuing trend of lower-skilled jobs lost to foreign competition, and automation 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 & 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 follows 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 the last three years in unfilled manufacturing jobs, with the rate going from about 1.5 percent vacant to about 2.5 percent, or one in 40 jobs not filled.

The New York Fed report said the manufacturing share of the nation's workforce 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 teamwork.

Hiring problems include job seekers with poor education - sometimes high school graduates can't read at an eighth-grade level - an indifference to work issues such as showing up every day, and the feeling that manufacturing is dirty work without a future.

In a 2005 report, the National Association of Manufacturers said skill shortages "are extremely broad and deep" and affected 80 percent of the more than 800 companies it surveyed. The findings remain consistent for 2007, the group said.

Adam Fekete, 17, hopes an innovative high school program in Cleveland will give him the 21st-century skills needed to become a third-generation blue-collar employee - in his case, working in manufacturing and computers.

Fekete, son of a sugar-refinery worker and grandson of an autoworker, is one of 118 students enrolled in a manufacturing program at Max S. Hayes High School in Cleveland.

The program has a rigorous curriculum, including calculus, chemistry, physics, robotics competitions, and rotations in computer-aided design and drafting, computer numerical control machining, robotics, and engineering welding.

Newcomers must be ready to keep improving their skills and know how to do more than one job, said John P. Colm, president and executive director of WIRE-Net, an industry-supported group that is a partner in the school's program.

"There's a future, but . . . you have to be smart," Colm said. "Manufacturing is far from dead. It's changing. Every part of our economy is changing."