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Continued: Wieffering: Good pay, job security in two years instead of four

  • Article by: ERIC WIEFFERING , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 16, 2012 - 10:12 AM

E.J. Daigle has a plea for America's moms and dads.

Please encourage your children to consider a career in manufacturing.

Tough sell. After all, our own parents and a gantlet of guidance and career counselors have drummed into our collective heads the economic value of a college degree. And they've got studies on their side, which show that people with a four-year degree do better financially over the course of their lives than those who do not have one.

Contrast that with those scary data points about the U.S. manufacturing sector, like the one showing the loss of 6 million jobs in the past decade, or the ongoing narrative about a shrinking middle class.

But let Daigle describe an alternative reality, one where manufacturing companies bid against each other for the services of people who, for instance, know how to program and operate a computer-controlled, $45,000 lathe.

Last year, 400 firms, some from as far away as Pennsylvania, pestered Daigle about hiring the 14 graduates of the two-year machine tooling program at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis.

Half of this year's projected graduating class of 21 are already working. By June all expect to have jobs with an average starting salary of about $35,000.

"There aren't enough people in the Twin Cities who can do what these students are learning," said Daigle, director of Dunwoody's robotics and manufacturing programs.

Daigle's experience lends some credence to the claim that biggest threat facing the U.S. manufacturing sector is not cheaper competitors in China or Mexico, but the gulf between the talents companies say they need to grow their businesses and the talents of those looking for work.

A Manufacturing Institute report published in December went so far as to estimate that up to 600,000 manufacturing jobs were going unfilled because of this skills gap.

I've generally been wary of studies that moan about there being too few workers with the skills employers need. They are usually based on surveys of employers, which can be notoriously unreliable. They also rarely account for how much an employer is willing to pay, or whether employers are investing in training programs that can help their current workforce develop new skills

But in this instance, I'm willing to give some manufacturers the benefit of the doubt.

For one thing, wages for many highly skilled manufacturing jobs are rising much faster than wages in general, a sure sign that these skills are in high demand.

Before the recession, the average weekly wage for a Minnesotan working in a metal forging and stamping facility was $847. Five years later it was $961, an increase of almost 14 percent. For someone working in a shop that machined precision components, the average weekly wage rose more than 15 percent, to $967 in the second quarter of 2011.

"When people talk about the decline of manufacturing, they're talking about the wrong kind of jobs," Daigle said.

Actually, they're not. Even amid intense demand for the skills Daigle's programs teach, the number of people working in metal forging and stamping fell more than 10 percent in the five years ending June 2011. And things aren't expected to improve over the next decade as foreign competition, technology advances and productivity gains reduce the total number of even the most of the highly skilled and highest-paying manufacturing jobs.

The number of machinist jobs, for example, is expected to shrink by 1 percent in Minnesota and 5 percent nationally. The number of jobs for tool and die makers, who can earn as much as $70,000 a year, is expected to drop by almost 14 percent in Minnesota.

Normally, wages could be expected to fall along with the number of jobs. That the opposite is happening illustrates just how complex labor markets can be.

Technology allows manufacturers to do more with fewer people, but companies must pay more for the skills needed to run something like a computer numerically controlled lathe. Most young people with the math, mechanical and computer skills needed to run those kinds of machines don't become machinists. They choose instead to attend college.

As a result, there are not enough new machinists to replace the ones who are retiring, dying or changing careers. That's why, even though there will be 19,000 fewer machinists a decade from now, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says "job opportunities for machinists should continue to be good."

The United States added more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs in 2011. Manufacturing employment in Minnesota, meanwhile, has increased for each of the last two years, the first time that has happened since 1997-1998.

It may be too early to say whether the trend will continue, but the return of Made in America has been one of the unexpected, feel-good stories of this less-than-great economic recovery. If it spurs even a few people to take a fresh look at a career in manufacturing, Daigle is ready.

"I could easily take more students," he said.

ericw@startribune.com • 612-673-1736

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