Manufacturing jobs are open, but skills gap holds back high-tech industry

Manufacturing jobs are open, but skills gap holds back high-tech industry

skills gap rs 082914056fThe quest is on throughout the Kansas City area.

At A&E Custom Manufacturing, they’re looking for someone with welding and robotic machine experience.

At Clay & Bailey Manufacturing, they need what’s called a “computer numerically controlled machine operator.”

At Moly-Cop USA, there are openings for a few experienced industrial mechanics.

Not qualified? Not interested? Not physically or mentally able?

Therein lies the skills gap at the heart of manufacturing locally and nationwide. Employers say they can’t find the talent they need to run their sophisticated factory equipment. And job hunters who don’t match the openings keep looking for work.

The result: In a sector that employs 73.6 million nationally, there are an estimated 600,000 manufacturing job openings. A similar vacancy share probably exists locally.

After being slammed by the Great Recession, U.S. manufacturing is coming back from steep job losses. The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, in its August manufacturing survey, said regional manufacturing companies have been expanding production for eight straight months.

To be sure, computerization and robotics mean that the number of jobs won’t ever return to peaks seen in the late 1990s. But more jobs are now available — if workers have the right talents to fill them.

It’s a problem that a lot of people are working on as the nation celebrates Labor Day 2014.

In Kansas City and many communities around the country, there are a wealth of school-to-work programs linking high school and college students with industrial employers. And many manufacturers are involved in associations or civic groups that provide internships, sponsor training programs and even place manufacturing equipment in schools for training purposes.

But those efforts take time to work and haven’t yet produced sufficient numbers of students or trainees to fill the jobs.

“It really has to start in junior high,” said Steve Hasty, owner and president at A&E Custom Manufacturing in the Fairfax area of Kansas City, Kan. “We can train our own welders, but it has to start with people who have respect for what we do, who are accountable for their actions, who are able to complete a sentence that our customers can understand.

“We’re talking reading, writing, arithmetic, plus an attitude of ‘What can I help you do?’ rather than ‘What can you do for me?’”

That’s a common refrain from employers in any industry, but in the increasingly high-tech world of industrial manufacturing, it has become a national anthem.

“We’re finding a lack of basic math skills,” said John Patrick, president of Clay & Bailey Manufacturing in east Kansas City, which makes fittings and accessories for the petroleum tank business. “Some applicants can’t even read a ruler, let alone operate calipers or other measuring devices.”

Patrick, who said it typically takes at least six applicants per opening to find a good hire, thinks the dearth of capable workers stems partly from outdated notions of manufacturing. Much of the work “isn’t dirty or boring anymore,” he said. That perception might keep some people from considering those careers.

He and other employers also are seeing a changing of the generations along with stepped-up need for “blue tech” workers. By one estimate, about 10,000 skilled-trade workers a day are reaching retirement age.

“Metalworking has gone to computer-controlled machines,” Patrick said. “Plus, the former tool and die makers are retiring and not enough have replaced them.”

According to several manufacturers with openings in the Kansas City area, their vacant positions would pay between $14 and $25 an hour. Some would be union positions, others nonunion; some direct employment and some through temporary or contract agencies.

Jeff Owens, president of Advanced Technology Services, runs a training company that was spun off from Caterpillar to provide blue tech training to other companies. It’s not inexpensive, he acknowledged.

“You could spend $10,000 a year per employee in training to ramp up their skills,” Owens said. “That’s a high number, but it’s do-able for big manufacturers. The challenge for smaller companies is to get an employee to the necessary skills,” sometimes starting “below zero” with math ability.

“If you have someone with the right stuff, companies will spend the money needed to get them where they need to be,” Owens said.

Several Kansas City area manufacturers agreed that filling jobs successfully, instead of cycling through unsuccessful workers, depends on how well they recruit and hire.

That’s a sticking point for some applicants. They say that online hiring procedures, which search for specific key words, or human resource generalists who don’t understand the specifics of the work sometimes prevent them from making the case that they could do the job.

Hirers would rather focus on candidates who show relevant experience. But Hasty said he looks for character, commitment and competence, including some computer literacy or aptitude. “Beyond that, we can train,” he said.

That is music to the ears of Dave Flanders, president of Christopher and Long, a recruiting company.

“The shortage of ‘good’ workers is a myth,” Flanders contended. “There are millions of good workers who are ready and willing to be trained, and they will make great employees if someone would just take the time and money to train them.”

Yet the cost of training and the deadline pressures in many manufacturing environments often make that a difficult proposition.

At A&E Custom Manufacturing, the average turnaround time for a parts order is 21/2 days, Hasty said, “so we need our people here every day.” The company can’t handle it when employees don’t show up or need to be offline for training for very long.

Unfortunately, said Steve Ornduff, president of Moly-Cop, a grinding ball plant in east Kansas City, the search is always on to find skilled welders, industrial mechanics and electricians.

“It’s fairly easy to find unskilled labor for entry-level jobs, (but) this requires extensive training and time before these employees can effectively and safely fill vacancies,” Ornduff said. “I believe there is a need for more of our young people to enter trade schools rather than college to fill the demand. These are jobs that provide a good standard of living and job security.”

Story by Diane Stafford, KC Star

Image: Steve Highfill of Olathe is a skilled fabricator at A&E Custom Manufacturing, in Kansas City, Kan. He recently completed welding on a large project at the facility. Highfill is qualified in several skill sets and works on a variety of project at A&E. RICH SUGG/THE KANSAS CITY STAR

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