Now, to get students to fill gap for skilled work

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2012 - 10:07 PM

Trade groups aim to spread word that "these aren't your grandpa's manufacturing jobs."

WASHINGTON - Bob Kill says his mission is to undo a stereotype.

"We've told a whole generation of kids that manufacturing is not a good career," the CEO of Enterprise Minnesota said minutes before he testified at a Senate hearing Tuesday. "It's a second choice."

A second choice that can have first-rate pay, benefits and job security.

Kill oversees a Minneapolis nonprofit consulting firm that helps small and midsized manufacturers find properly trained workers. He was among eight business leaders who testified about a skills mismatch that has left 600,000 manufacturing jobs (4,900 in Minnesota) begging for qualified applicants, even as millions of Americans remain unemployed. Meanwhile, the U.S. issues thousands of visas annually to foreign workers to help fill the positions.

"These aren't your grandpa's manufacturing jobs," said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, who chaired the Senate Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion where Kill testified. "I see this as the only way to compete on the international stage."

While the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. has shrunk, the country continues to be the world's largest manufacturing economy. The U.S. Labor Department reports that manufacturers currently employ 12 million workers. It also says the manufacturing sector has created 470,000 jobs since January 2010.

People like Kill try to help businesses fill those jobs. But it's difficult because young Americans and their parents see manufacturing through a decades-old lens that distorts the new reality. Those who lived in factory towns where the plant closed are wary. The challenge for recruiters is to unwind myths.

Job placement above 90%

Businesses and schools need more sophistication than they once did to make the case for vocational and technical education. One of the most important elements, said Kill, is to show the end product to the young people targeted to make it. To do that, a new high school in Alexandria, Minn., will include permanent space for advanced manufacturers to display their wares.

"Typically, these are not the dirty, gritty jobs that they used to be," Kill said.

Most require computer literacy and formal certification of skills, some of which are generic, others highly specific. Those who meet the standards enjoy job placement rates in excess of 90 percent, above average pay, good benefits and stable employment.

"We're in a different kind of manufacturing now," Klobuchar said in an interview. "It may be fewer people doing the job, but you know we're still going to be making things. There's just a much better chance that when you get this [technical] degree that you have a degree that you can use for life."

Strategies for staffing hard-to-fill manufacturing jobs increasingly involve partnerships between industries and community colleges, some with curriculums written for specific jobs. Others, such as the Right Skills Now program piloted in Minnesota, lead to jobs without two-year associate degrees.

Recruitment for these initiatives may need to reach back to high school, said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. Warner noted that as governor of Virginia, he undertook a program to identify high school students who were not likely to go to traditional four-year colleges.

"We'd go to them their sophomore year and guarantee them that if they finished high school, we'd get them an industry certification [that could help them land a job]," Warner said. Students who graduated without the certification got one free semester in a state-run community college to meet the requirements.

Klobuchar mentioned the German national vocational training system, which teaches high school students a trade and places them in internships.

Welders wanted

Even low-tech trades, such as welding, require new recruiting tools. Welders are among the country's most sought-after technical workers, Kill said. These days, according to employment experts, welders command salaries as good or better than many white-collar workers and can work almost anywhere they choose. Yet a shortage of welders persists. So next month, the American Welding Society will roll out "Careers in Welding" trailers to drive to high schools around the country.

The 650-square-foot trailers are miniature laboratories that are hands-on and high tech in a way teenagers understand, said the welding society's corporate director, Monica Pfarr: "We'll have virtual simulators and video games to try welding. You get a score at the end."

Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752

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