Finding Skilled Workers for U.S. Manufacturing Jobs

By James R. Edwards, Jr. on February 20, 2012

The good news is American manufacturing jobs appear to be on the rise. After years of offshoring followed by the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, which contracted employment severely, some corporations are returning to the U.S. Other manufacturing firms are expanding operations. The bad news is those cackle-raising assertions about not being able to find qualified workers are back, too.

Take Monday’s headline from the Washington Post: "U.S. manufacturing sees shortage of skilled factory workers." Those of us who’ve been involved in immigration policy automatically go into skepticism mode. We’ve heard those little boys cry "wolf" way too many times before, in good times and bad.

The Post story reports on manufacturers in Michigan. That state faced recession-level economic conditions well before the overall economy tanked in 2008. It had been the victim of a deadly combo: slash-and-burn corporations willing to divorce their red-blooded American roots and move overseas as well as entrenched labor unions fixated on self-preservation that made unrealistic demands. That combo left Michigander blue collars between a rock and a hard place. Smaller shops that supplied parts to the larger manufacturers got caught in the vise. Official unemployment rates in the state remain above nine percent.

Reports the Post:

"A metal-parts factory here has been searching since the fall for a machinist, an assembly team leader and a die-setter. Another plant is offering referral bonuses for a welder. And a company that makes molds for automakers has been trying for seven months to fill four spots on the second shift."

The hiring holdup is reportedly that the new plants require different skills. Instead of running lathes and presses by hand in machine shops, automation now involves interaction with computers to make the equipment run. While this may require certain new skills, it is the height of arrogance and insult by any employers who ignore the American spirit within the breast of each of those American would-be workers. You can teach an old dog new tricks, and an American old dog better than anybody else in the whole wide world. That’s not only true in manufacturing, but in all U.S. economic sectors.

It’s not the American workers who’ve been sidelined who have the bad attitude. Many are trying to get the necessary training — hundreds in Michigan, according to the Post.

"You don’t see anyone advertising for just a tool and die maker anymore", said Tom Whitmore, 59, a tool and die maker who was laid off in 2009 after 33 years at a nearby auto parts maker. "They want CNC [computer numerically controlled] skills. For most of them, I can’t apply."

Whitmore and two of his co-workers are attending classes at Lake Michigan College to attain an associate’s degree in machine tool technology.

"I’m a statistic," said Mark Miller, 36, whose home went into foreclosure after he was laid off as a production technician. "I came straight out of high school and found a job. But these days, you have to have some technical skills. When I get out of here, the idea is to be able not just to run a machine but to program it."

At this point in the news story, we’ve come to expect to see employers quoted who bad-mouth Americans. They often insult their fellow Americans and belittle the Protestant work ethic that long has characterized America’s economic engine of success. These stories often default to quoting executives pleading for importing cheap foreign labor.

This news item gives a pleasant surprise. The Michigan employers the Post quotes are trying to get their fellow Americans prepared to take these jobs.

To fill slots, a few manufacturers have turned to hiring candidates who are untrained but have the inclination to work with their hands. Some recruiters said they like to find people who like to fix dirt bikes and snowmobiles. Then they train the candidates. Many companies have apprenticeship programs.

They’re working with community colleges to design curricula.

"We knew that we were not going to find the people with the right skills right off the streets," said Mark Pringle, director of operations at the plant. “So we tried to find people with the right aptitudes."

The Post notes how the new dynamic of Michigan manufacturing employment needs and not enough workers with those exact skill sets has raised wages. That’s known as the labor market at work regulating itself. To attract more highly skilled employees, employers pay more and offer better benefits and working conditions. This results in better paid workers, a better workforce, and greater productivity and profit. There’s no where in this equation for cheap foreign workers. They would actually nullify this otherwise happy outcome.

It’s too soon to know how this saga ends. But if manufacturers in Michigan and throughout the U.S. stick with their fellow Americans, they will be rewarded with productive, able workers who show that good-old American can-do spirit. They’ll outperform a dozen foreign workers, hands down.

Politicians, from the White House to Capitol Hill, should be forced to forego the work visa route. With 22 million Americans who can’t find a full-time job, we clearly don’t need more people competing for scarce American jobs. Rather, we need 100 percent commitment to improving job prospects for our own citizens. No importing of foreign workers to compete with our countrymen for any job openings.

And employers, from Fortune 500 corporations to Main Street small businesses, must make the same commitment to American workers. Read every single resume of an American citizen to fill a position, if that’s what it takes. Give an American a shot. These millions of unemployed and underemployed fellow citizens must be given every opportunity for any and every job opening. These loyal countrymen deserve to be taken care of first. As Booker T. Washington pleaded with industrialists of his day, cast down your bucket where you are to find workers.