As manufacturing grows, employers are struggling with ‘interest gap’

Washington PostMay 24, 2014 

GM Plant Anniversary Texas

U.S. manufacturing is undergoing a resurgence recently, but young workers and recent graduates aren’t interested in filling those new positions. This ‘interest gap,’ employers fear, will harm any future growth in the field.

LM OTERO — AP

A couple of weeks ago, Daniel Grigg had two problems with the career fair he hosted at Guilford Technical Community College, where it’s his job to get graduates on company payrolls.

The first problem was theoretically a good one: He did not have enough space to host the number of factories with open positions for machinists, welder and technicians. The second, though, has proved harder to solve: He doesn’t have enough people equipped to fill them.

“It kind of gets frustrating when I see the machinists ones because, I’m like, I only have nine of them graduating,” Grigg says. And the other categories aren’t looking much better. He just hasn’t been able to get students interested in factory jobs, which still exist around Greensboro, despite the area’s vastly diminished manufacturing economy.

“I think if they knew more about them, they would be, because the money’s amazing,” Grigg says of the jobs available to those with an industrial construction technology degree – with pay starting at around $40,000, not bad for suburban North Carolina. “Most will graduate and make more than I will. It’s sad because it’s so cheap, like four-grand, to get your degree. With my master’s degree, I’ll be paying it off forever.”

But why has it been so hard to get students – both young and old – to act in their own financial self-interest? Well, Grigg says, manufacturing jobs just don’t sound that glamorous. “They want to do what you’re doing right now, or they want to be engineers,” he says. “I think part of it is a misconception of what manufacturing looks like in 2014, and I think there’s still a stigma about community colleges.”

The interest gap

Somebody’s going to have to change their minds if this very nascent manufacturing recovery in the United States is to continue. What Grigg described is part of what’s often called the “skills gap,” with today’s workers ill-equipped to take the jobs available in the recently resurgent industry. But it might more accurately be called an “interest gap,” if people don’t feel compelled to supply the demand.

In northeastern Wisconsin, a bunch of companies have joined together to try to change that. It started in 2006, when people like Andy Bushmaker – a human resources manager at KI Furniture, which reports about $700 million in sales annually – started to have trouble filling jobs, especially the seasonal ones that turn into permanent positions down the road.

“The problem is that we have a lot of retirements and an incoming workforce that doesn’t necessarily have an interest in manufacturing,” says Bushmaker, who hires more than 200 people per year for his busiest period. He has 30 permanent workers between the ages of 60 and 69 at his Green Bay plant whom he’ll need to replace – the average welder nationally is 55 years old – and he says it took him nine months to fill the last spot he had open for a tool-and-die worker.

“I think there’s an overall stigma about manufacturing in general. Manufacturing isn’t what it was 20 years ago, and there’s this idea that it’s a dirty and dark profession.” (Also, the area isn’t exactly desperate; unemployment is below the national average at 6.2 percent.)

Understanding demand

The industry sure does look a lot different these days. It’s typically clean and sanitary workplace, with robots to do most of the heavy lifting and powerful machines instead of belching furnaces. But that image hasn’t translated to the young people looking for jobs in a tough economy – or perhaps more important, their parents, who might have learned from hard experience that manufacturing jobs disappear and a four-year college degree is the only sure route to the middle class.

“One of the difficulties is helping people understand our labor market demand,” says Ann Franz, executive director of the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance, which is funded through a federal workforce development program. “Parents really need to understand, ‘What are the jobs available in our area, so I can counsel my child on what occupations that will allow you to find a job on the other end?’”

But are there really jobs, though? Looking at the numbers, it appears that while manufacturing activity has been picking up substantially, each widget requires a lot less human labor to produce than it used to, and employers often backfill that supply with low-wage temp workers. Recent research indicates that there’s not really a skills gap at all; instead, there’s very weak demand for new employees from companies that are still hesitant to hire. Also, if there really were jobs available, economists argue, companies would pony up to attract qualified applicants. But there’s no evidence that wages have been rising in manufacturing as they have been in health care.

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