Downsizing's human toll

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 30, 2008 - 9:23 PM

Manufacturing jobs and the skill sets of potential employees, especially older applicants, often are out of alignment, leaving many feeling embittered.

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Richard Espeseth, 60, of South St. Paul is looking for work as a truck driver or for a job in a warehouse, as a forklift driver or production worker. He attended the Get Jobs Job Fair at the Eagan Civic Arena.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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For more than 20 years, Richard Espeseth deftly operated huge steelmaking machines. But he never mastered the computer keyboard.

Now the 60-year-old wonders if that gap in his skill set is keeping him from his next manufacturing job. Downsized out of a job at Northstar Steel in 2002 and again at Great Western Recycling in 2007, he's been searching for his next gig for six months.

"I just can't believe that I can't find a job. I have a good work ethic. I show up for work and I work hard," but nothing, said Espeseth, one of 2,000 people attending the "Get Jobs Job Fair" at the Eagan Civic Arena this month.

Espeseth represents a growing number of middle-aged and older factory workers who lost their jobs to layoffs, outsourcing or new technology that reduced the need for factory workers. Displaced manufacturing workers say they're struggling to regain their footing in an economic climate haunted by recession worries, a painful housing slump and a devastating credit crunch.

Many older job applicants say they are flat-out irritated with news reports that jobs are plentiful.

Their anger flared recently after Gov. Tim Pawlenty, state officials and educators held three Manufacturing Roundtables to address a "job-skills gap" and the perceived shortage of skilled job applicants. Pawlenty talked of employers who have jobs, training and sometimes salaries of $50,000 a year for young adults and yet get no takers.

"When I hear Pawlenty talking about [available] high-paying respectable jobs, I just know the whole story isn't there," said Bill Kuhl, a 57-year-old toolmaker who lost his job when Industrial Molded Rubber shut down its tool room.

Manufacturing jobs evaporate

Minnesota's manufacturing employment fell by 4,800 jobs last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

Minnesota manufacturing jobs peaked in June of 1998 at 398,800, according to the DEED statistics. By February 2008, the sector's headcount had fallen to 340,700, down 14.6 percent from the 1998 peak.

And earlier this month, Minnesota's Business Conditions Index reported a drop in orders, production, inventories and employment, according to a survey by Creighton University.

Jobs yes, but for whom?

While acknowledging the statistics, DEED Commissioner Dan McElroy says there are manufacturing jobs out there. The state's free job bank shows employers with 18,000 to 23,000 jobs, of which 1,748 are in manufacturing, he said.

"The largest category is machinery manufacturing,'' McElroy said. "The second-largest is printing. Third is computer and electronics products, which includes medical devices. These are jobs out there that range in pay from $12 to $30 an hour.''

McElroy noted recent hires at the new Arctic Cat engine plant in St. Cloud, the Suzlon wind turbine plant and a Daktonics scoreboard facility.

Smaller firms are hiring

"Many of the companies hiring today tend to be smaller than the Imations, 3M's and Ford," McElroy said. "But they are, in many cases, really good jobs."

That was apparent at the recent Eagan job fair, which had 89 exhibitors such as Home Depot, CVS stores, banks, senior care centers, Schwan's Home food delivery, FedEx, insurance and health care companies.

Only a sprinkling of distributors and manufacturers searched for workers, however. Recruiters from furniture maker Waymar Industries, water filtration experts from Dow Chemical's FilmTec division and headhunters from Sysco Food Services, StaffLogix in Eagan and ResourceMFG in Burnsville said they expected to snag a few promising résumés during the day.

FilmTec has 60 openings

"We are expanding and plan on hiring 60 [manufacturing] positions throughout the year," said FilmTec operation manager Jim Lundberg. The company makes reverse- osmosis elements used in water-filtration systems.

Michael Farren just opened ResourceMFG's first Minnesota office a few months ago with the idea of placing manufacturing workers like Espeseth in new jobs as computerized CNC machinists, manufacturing engineers, injection mold technicians, and maintenance technicians who are skilled in electronics and hydraulics.

"If we can find some with the skills they need, [companies] are willing to pay $20 to $32 an hour," Farren said, adding that "We sometimes have to educate people that they can go to a technical college and take machining classes. They can graduate and get $40,000, $50,000 or $60,000."

McElroy encourages employers to hire older workers and to consider flex schedules, seasonal and part-time hires in order to maximize use of a valuable resource.

Some 60,000 retirements are expected by 2015 and yet only 20,000 new workers will enter the workforce, McElroy said. "Older workers are just as productive, if not more productive, than younger workers. But not everyone has gotten the message."

A complicated picture

The hiring situation is complicated, said Jody Pepinski, Business Services Specialist for DEED's WorkForce Centers in Dakota and Scott counties.

"Manufacturers are looking for machinists. But the reason that older workers aren't targeted is because the majority of workers at these manufacturing firms are already over 50," she said adding that she occasionally hears about age discrimination. That's why DEED sometimes hosts job fairs just for middle-age workers.

Author and retired University of St. Thomas manufacturing professor Fred Zimmerman knows there is a lot of stress out there in the manufacturing sector.

"I am not surprised that [the manufacturing roundtables] resulted in comments on the current situation,'' he said. "There is genuine uncertainty out there. ... And I am not sure some of the elected public officials really grasp the dynamics of the changes taking place in manufacturing."

Stressful times for businesses

Zimmerman pointed out that orders for manufactured goods "are shrinking, banks are less willing to loan money and their manufacturing costs are rising. Steel went up 25 percent last month. And health care is through the roof. All those things add to uncertainty. And of course in many cases, [businesses] are not able to pass those costs along" to customers.

Pepinski had plenty of advice for older job-seekers. She suggested they conduct mock job interviews and résumé reviews with Minnesota Workforce counselors, who are available in every county in the state.

She also said some job applicants err by spotlighting their age with outdated clothes, poorly styled hair or résumés that highlight their 30 years' experience with one employer.

"It's no one's business how old you are," she told Espeseth. She suggested that he only list a partial work history and showcase the various job titles he held at NorthStar Steel.

"And put what equipment you have run, so they can say, 'Hey we've got that here,'" she said. "You've got to do whatever it takes to get in the door that is honest, of course.

"And consider a haircut."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

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