U.S. manufacturing companies, long known for layoffs and shipping jobs overseas, now find themselves in a very different position: scrambling for scarce talent at home.
Large and small manufacturers of everything from machine tools to chemicals are scouring for potential hires in high schools, community colleges and the military. They are poaching from one another, retraining people who used to have white-collar jobs, and in some cases even hiring former prisoners who learned machinist skills behind bars.
Third, the U.S. education system isn't turning out enough people with the math and science skills needed to operate and repair sophisticated computer-controlled factory equipment, jobs that often pay $50,000 to $80,000 a year, plus benefits. Manufacturers say parents and guidance counselors discourage bright kids from even considering careers in manufacturing.
"We get people coming in here all the time who say, 'I can weld,'" says Denis Gimbel, human-resources manager at Lehigh Heavy Forge Corp., of Bethlehem, Pa., whose products include parts for ships. "Well, my grandmother could weld." He needs people who understand the intricacies of $1 million lathes and other metal-shaping equipment.
Manufacturers have anticipated for years that baby-boomer retirements would create difficulties. Among those who have tried to get ahead of the demographic curve—with mixed success—is Jeff Kelly, chief executive of Hamill Manufacturing Co., a family-owned company near Pittsburgh that cuts metal into parts for ships and machinery.
Hamill doesn't have any button-pushing work. The 127-employee company is constantly resetting its mills and lathes to produce small numbers of parts to meet precise and ever-changing specifications. There are no long, routine production runs.
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 has had particular trouble filling positions in such areas as chemical-process technology at its plastics plant in Baytown, Texas, near Houston. A decade ago, Mr. Babe says, a job opening typically would attract 100 applications. "These days I get about 10," he says. After screening, Bayer often finds that only a couple are qualified. Some jobs have been open six to nine months.
"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.
Manufacturers say the U.S. education system doesn't produce enough students strong in math, science and engineering. About 5% of bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S. are in engineering, compared with an average of about 20% in Asia, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation. In the most recent comparison of math and science test scores of 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American students trailed far behind those from China, Japan, South Korea, Canada and Germany.
Help Wanted on Factory Floor
By JAMES R. HAGERTY
May 6, 2011
Wall Street Journal
The Race between Education and Technology