Help wanted: Manufacturers struggle to find skilled employees

The following appeared in PlasticsToday:
by Clare Goldsberry (published: January 15, 2016

 

 

Manufacturing needs new blood in order to breathe new life back into this segment of the economy, but finding young people and creating the programs needed to train them will take a lot of work on the part of the manufacturing community. Larry Taitel, President of Convertech Inc., a manufacturer of air shafts and chucks in Wharton, NJ, and Dr. John W. Kennedy, CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturer’s Extension Partnership (NJMEP), are outspoken advocates of state-supported educational opportunities for students in machining.

New Jersey is home to 11,000 manufacturers, and yet, Taitel told PlasticsToday, finding the skilled machinists he needs to keep up with demand for his products is nearly impossible. Taitel currently employs 45 people, 35 of whom are production workers, in his 40,000-square-foot manufacturing area.

“Every year it gets worse, and now it’s intolerable,” Taitel lamented.

Taitel is in the same boat as nearly every manufacturing company. And it doesn’t appear that things will get any better over the next decade. According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in its biennial 10-year projection, the economy is returning to a more consistent growth path, but the growth is slower than the long-term trends that existed prior to the Great Recession. “The combination of a slowing of population growth, a continuation of longstanding trends of decreasing labor force participation and a lower unemployment rate will result in employment growth slightly stronger from 2014 to 2024 than it was from 2004 to 2014,” said the overview of the report.

Unfortunately the report projects that the service-providing sectors will account for the majority of projected job growth. That could mean that people like Taitel and moldmakers and plastics processors will see more young people flipping burgers and making lattes than applying for jobs as machinists, moldmakers, press operators and quality control technicians.

Taitel puts the blame on the manufacturing industry for not being proactive in working with high schools to keep shop classes active or partnering with vo-tech schools to ensure that the skills taught and the machinery used keep up with changing manufacturing technologies. As shop classes and vo-tech schools became obsolete, manufacturing dropped the ball and now it’s crying for skills that no longer exist.

“Thirty years ago, all high schools had machine shops and taught skills,” said Taitel, remembering back to the days when he took shop classes. “Then schools got on this kick that everyone needs to go to college. But that’s not where the jobs are today. The jobs are in making things; in manufacturing, the jobs have been there all along.”

Taitel doesn’t begrudge anyone getting a college degree. Eight of his employees have college degrees but they are in areas that are in demand at his plant, and they don’t have a degree just for the sake of having a degree. “We’ve lost an entire generation of machinists by taking shop out of the schools and eliminating vo-tech schools,” he said. “We need to get this back into the schools and tell the kids that manufacturing offers good, high-paying jobs.”

At Convertech, the work is low volume—one to five pieces for customized roll-fed machinery. That means that Taitel does a lot of work on manual machines, because automating at such low volumes isn’t efficient given the amount of programming and setup involved for each job. He operates 30 manual lathes and six automatic lathes, noting that using the manual lathe is still the best way to make one or two pieces. “People need to be able to do this,” he said. “Even to go to an automation operator position, you need to come from the manual side of things. You need to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t work.”

Convertech pays well,In spite of that, “nobody wants to get their hands dirty,” Taitel said.

The BLS said in its report that the manufacturing sector is projected to experience the largest employment loss of any sector. “A projected loss of 814,000 jobs from 2014 to 2024 would reduce manufacturing employment to just under 11.4 million. While the loss is large, it is less than 40% of the loss that was experienced from 2004 to 2014, when more than 2.1 million manufacturing jobs were lost.” And the annual decline of 0.7% over the current projection period is less than the 1.6% annual decline that occurred from 2004 to 2014, the BLS report noted.

Taitel thinks that one solution is letting people know that manufacturing is not yet dead; that it’s not even on life support. “Everybody thinks manufacturing has left the country, but China took the low-paying, mass-production jobs,” he commented. “Everybody thinks that if you don’t go to college you can’t make money, and [that] manufacturing is bad work.”

But it’s going to take a lot of work on the part of manufacturers to attract young people to manufacturing. They will need to engage in collaborative efforts with high school guidance counselors to put young people on a trade track and help community colleges set up manufacturing technology programs and then support those programs to keep them relevant.

NJMEP’s John Kennedy agrees. “Manufacturers can’t sit back and wait for someone else to fix the problem. We have to fix it ourselves by imparting to our elected officials and school curriculum decision makers how important skills training is for our students, our manufacturers and our state. We’re looking for New Jersey to support apprenticeships and get us back on track for everyone’s sake,” he stated. “It’s up to us. Those of us who have spent our lives in this amazing industry must make sure that we pass the word along to all who will listen to help ensure our future.”