Manufacturers seek skilled workers

Manufacturers are looking for skilled or trainable workers in high schools, community colleges and the military, writes James Hagerty in the Wall Street Journal.

After years of decline, the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs is growing while baby boomers are retiring. But employers aren’t willing to hire workers who lack “the math and science skills needed to operate and repair sophisticated computer-controlled factory equipment.”  Although skilled manufacturing jobs often pay $50,000 to $80,000 a year, plus benefits, “parents and guidance counselors discourage bright kids from even considering careers in manufacturing.”

Hamill Manufacturing near Pittsburgh works with nearby vocational schools to find new workers.

One morning in late April, Trent Thompson, a 20-year-old Hamill apprentice wearing shredded jeans and a black baseball cap, was assigned to drill three holes in a piece of carbon steel about the size and shape of a hockey puck. To make sure he was spacing the holes exactly right, he scrawled a triangle and some trigonometric calculations on a notepad. Even a tiny error would mean wasting about $400 of metal.

In another corner of the factory, Bill Schaltenbrand, 59, was cutting bigger, more complicated parts. A computer had worked out where he should drill and cut, but Mr. Schaltenbrand, a 40-year veteran at Hamill, does his own math to double-check the plans. Computers, he says, sometimes “punch out stupid stuff.” Part of Mr. Schaltenbrand’s skill is reading blueprints with myriad numbers and symbols that would baffle most people.

 Bayer AG can’t fill chemical-process technology jobs at its plastics plant in Baytown, Texas, near Houston. Few applicants are qualified.  

“This place is five acres, and it’s three stories tall,” says Donny Simon, 55, who has worked in the plant since 1988. It takes time to understand how all the pipes, valves, pumps and feedstock tanks work together and how to avoid explosions or other accidents. Technicians need basic math and science for such tasks as calculating the rate at which dyes and stabilizing agents need to be added for specially ordered batches of plastics.

Because it can’t find enough candidates with relevant experience, Bayer this summer will for the first time hire interns to learn how to operate machinery at the Baytown plant. It plans to offer $18 to $23 an hour—unusually good pay for summer jobs—and to choose among students in “process technology” at local community colleges. Those who do well are likely to be offered permanent jobs.

Colorado-based Woodward, Inc., which makes parts for aircraft and power-generation equipment, closed its training academy in the late ’90s.  Now the company is paying tuition and other costs for two dozen manufacturing students at Illinois community colleges near a Woodward factory.  Students also are paid for 20 hours of work per week.  Once they earn two-year degrees, maintaining a 3.0 average, they’ll be offered jobs starting at $25,000 to $48,000 a year.

Some companies are outsourcing maintenance to Advanced Technology Services Inc. of Peoria, Ill. ATS is doubling its size. The company likes to hire military veterans with experience fixing machinery. ATS also funds students in 40-week  community-college training programs and engineering scholarships at universities.