CLEVELAND - Michael Starr was laid off in midcareer from his factory job and found himself back in the classroom to upgrade his skills — for a new high-tech manufacturing environment struggling to find workers.
Working in industry today “is not like the old days: get a hammer and fix it,” the 45-year-old said.
Starr was laid off Jan. 15 from his sheet-metal working job in suburban Medina. He has 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.
When he showed up in class, “I was terrified, (like) training an old dog new tricks,” he said.
The nation has shed 5 million manufacturing jobs in three decades, but higher-skill factory jobs like Starr’s goal increasingly go unfilled as employers deal with applicants with 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.
And the pattern is likely to persist as the nation sheds oldstyle manufacturing to compete in a global economy.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in a report last year, predicted a continuing trend of lower-skilled jobs lost to foreign competition and automation and giving way to a smaller number of higherskilled 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 and 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 to 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 three years in the rate of vacant manufacturing jobs, going from the 1.5 percent range to about 2.5 percent, or one in 40 jobs vacant.
The New York Fed report said the manufacturing share of the nation’s work force 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 team work.
In nearby Euclid, where factories line Interstate 90 for miles, hiring can be demanding for the employee-owned Marine Mechanical Corp., which makes electric devices for aircraft carriers and submarines.
“It is getting more and more difficult to find folks with the skill levels we desire,” said Mary Pat Salomone, president and CEO of the 250-employee company. The company is looking for experienced machinists and lathe operators for $20 hourly and benefits and began the year with 10 job openings.
The problem likely will worsen with baby boomer retirements. The Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET) organization in Cleveland estimated 800,000 manufacturing jobs in the Midwest will be vacated by retirements in the next six years. Laid-off workers often lack the skills needed in newer, high-tech jobs.
Hiring problems include job seekers with poor education — sometimes high school graduates who 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.
There are indications that high-tech investments have created manufacturing jobs.
The nation’s manufacturing job sector grew by 4.5 percent, on average, in 2006, while the U.S. economy expanded 3.1 percent, the National Association of Manufacturers said. U.S. manufacturing was helped by increased exports and more investment.
In a 2005 report, the association said skill shortages “are extremely broad and deep” and had 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 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 overlooking Lake Erie in a gritty Cleveland neighborhood where small, high-tech plants sit alongside locked factories.
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.
Fekete showed off his ability to use a computer-designed program to punch plate-sized metal parts for use in industrial heaters. He and classmate Alexander Story, 17, who wants to become an engineer, did the computer program in a laboratory filled with Dell computers and busy classmates who didn’t need to be quieted.
Work in manufacturing? “There’s not too many people who want to do it,” said Story, who figures the lack of interest among his peers will make it easier for him to make a mark.
The school encourages good work habits by letting younger students pair up with more studious older students, like those who watched Fekete work in an area that looks like a shop floor.
A partner in the school program, the industry-supported WIRE-Net organization, tries to ease the transition for lessskilled workers to land a goodpaying manufacturing job.
The nonprofit organization offers vocational training with a strong dose of life and job skills like acting responsibly on the plant floor — meaning you won’t have a supervisor standing over you all the time like your grandfather may have. And you won’t be assigned to run the same machine for 40 years.
Newcomers must be ready to keep improving their skills and know how to do more than one job, according to John P. Colm, president and executive director of WIRE-Net.
“There’s a future but, again, you have to be smart. You can’t sit on your high school diploma,” Colm said. “Manufacturing is far from dead. It’s changing. Every part of our economy is changing.”