Left for dead, manufacturing cries out for workers

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 9, 2008 - 3:59 PM

A large and important sector of the state's economy is struggling to lure young workers despite the promise of high salaries and other incentives.

Manufacturing is far from dead, but too many young people think they've already seen the obituary.

That's the word from Gov. Tim Pawlenty and companies across the state who met late last week at a series of roundtables to brainstorm about how to attract and prepare reluctant young workers to what in many cases remains a high-paying field.

The governor, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and MnSCU hosted roundtables in Rochester, Brainerd and South St. Paul to discuss potential solutions to the widespread problem.

Manufacturers told Pawlenty that they have jobs to offer, but can't find skilled workers or students interested in training.

Many young adults are passing up career opportunities with extensive training and salaries that begin at $50,000 a year, they said.

"It's frustrating," Pawlenty said at hydrant maker Waterous Co. in South St. Paul. "People have the mistaken impression that manufacturing's a dead industry and that we are not making anything in America anymore. That's not true. Thirteen percent of all the jobs in Minnesota are manufacturing. ... It remains a really important part of our economy."

Another myth plaguing the industry is that all manufacturing is "old, dark and dirty," officials said.

In contrast, most manufacturing is now done in modern facilities that use robotics and computers. "This is not your mother or father's manufacturing industry. This is not only about pulling the lever on a machine anymore," Pawlenty said.

Still, many parents dissuade children from heading to technical colleges and factory jobs.

DEED Commissioner Dan McElroy said that the National Association of Manufacturers is experimenting with a "Dream It-Do It!" education campaign that employs interactive game-like videos to introduce students to the topic. Students in Japan regularly use computer tablets and hand-held computer games to learn, McElroy said.

"We're in an age of YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and Photobucket. The way kids absorb and learn is so different today. So kids [encountering] someone just lecturing at the white board are often flat-out bored," Pawlenty said.

Educators from Minnesota schools, colleges and universities said they are trying other new approaches to reach prospective students and job candidates, but their audience often isn't receptive.

Ron Thomas, president of Dakota County Technical College, said his school used to offer a machining program. "It is unfortunate but we had to close it. We tried a number of things. We tried to partner with [a company] in California and tried offering full scholarships. For whatever reason, it just didn't work."

Todd Roth, director of bindery and subscription services at Thomson West in Eagan, said the same problem exits in printing. Finding apprentices and workers is difficult.

According to DEED, manufacturing accounts for 11 percent of all job vacancies in the state, second only to health care. There were 6,527 manufacturing jobs open in the second quarter of 2007, the most recent period for which data are available.

David Berg, owner of South St. Paul Steel Supply Co., said his company is now offering to pay for two years of tuition at St. Paul Technical College, which has a welders program. Skilled welders can snag $50,000 salaries.

The dearth of skilled job applicants is hampering Minnesota's growth and competitiveness, Pawlenty said. Domaille Engineering in Rochester could easily double the size of its fiber optics plant but can't find enough workers, he added.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

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