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Why high-tech machinists will be in demand in Philly region

While high-tech jobs attract the headlines, some of the most in-demand jobs in the next decade might be in an unexpected sector: manufacturing.

While high-tech jobs attract the headlines, some of the most in-demand jobs in the next decade might be in an unexpected sector: manufacturing.

A 2015 report by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute forecasts nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled in the next decade, and two million are expected to go unfilled due to a lack of skilled candidates.

Despite booming demand, relatively few young people are entering these specialized professions. The labor shortage in the sector, specifically for machinists, will become particularly acute as baby boomers begin to retire. Hiring, training, and retaining machinists are also proving to be a challenge.

Machinists shape metal to produce parts for use in many fields, from helicopter rotors to table forks. The increasingly precise nature of the work requires exact measurement, and fabrication of machine parts has helped drive the computerization of the workplace.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the modern machinist will require command of specialized fields such as "mechanics, mathematics, metal properties, layout, and machining procedures."

To address this gap, the Philadelphia/Delaware Valley Chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association and Choice Careers LLC worked with community colleges and vocational high schools across the region to establish an apprenticeship program to train current and future machinists.

"Younger workers are being left out of the growing demand for low- to mid-skilled labor due to either being underqualified exiting high schools or overburdened with student debt for more general degrees," said Kevin Mulcahy, a Babson College instructor, Harvard Business School coach, and coauthor of The Future Workplace. "An apprenticeship system would certainly be one way to close the growing skills gaps."

After a yearlong pilot, the machining association's Tristate Apprenticeship Program was officially registered by the Pennsylvania State Apprenticeship Council on Nov. 10. Instead of relying only on the number of hours, apprentices will be assessed on mastery of core skills gained from coursework and on-the-job training. This approach allows an apprentice to work at his or her own pace and at the school that is most convenient. Regional community colleges and career tech schools are providing the standardized curriculum.

Clara Console, president of Choice Careers, which runs the program, plans to have 50 apprentices enroll by the end of 2017.

If the program grows, Console said, she hopes to introduce pre-apprenticeship programs that get interested but inexperienced workers into the sector.

As of now, a manufacturer needs to connect an employee with the program and pay for the apprenticeship. While federal and state funding may help offset the costs, a typical year in the program could cost $3,000 per apprentice.

In November, Gov. Wolf awarded $214,000 to nonprofit Philadelphia Works to develop an apprenticeship program that provided workers for Rhoads Industries and "other small- to midsize manufacturers in the region."

There are perception problems that need to be overcome, Console said. For example, an analysis by Deloitte found that while nine in 10 Americans surveyed believe manufacturing is essential to the U.S. economy, only one in three parents would encourage their children to pursue such a career.

In fact, a study by Berkeley researchers at the National Employment Law Project found that many recent hires in manufacturing were brought aboard as temp workers with lower pay and fewer benefits.

"The challenge is the marketing," Console said. "We first need to get manufacturers on board with this concept to change people's attitudes."