Plentiful Manufacturing Jobs Belied by Unemployment Numbers?

We were recently contacted by a financial news-oriented TV channel on the subject of manufacturing jobs within the United States. The editor of the program discussed with us the fact that manufacturing remains the one “bright spot within the US economy. Many would concur with that point and in fact, William Strauss, senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, who also publishes the monthly Midwest Manufacturing Index, specifically talked about the performance of the manufacturing sector at our recent International Trade Policy Breaking Point conference (which readers can view in its entirety in three panels; this is the link to the first panel on which Strauss appeared). The evidence behind the notion that the “recovery (and we have plenty of definitions as to what that actually means) appears incontrovertible manufacturing has led and continues to lead the growth (see the latest ISM report, also supporting that last statement).

Despite the performance of the manufacturing sector, job growth continues to elude the US economy (see the latest unemployment figures in this BLS press release). Some believe that without 5 percent GDP growth, it could take years to return to 5 percent unemployment levels.

And yet, despite the headline numbers, this news channel has a hypothesis that US manufacturers are indeed hiring but they can’t find the “right” people to fill those positions.

So we put a few feelers out to our clients, friends and colleagues who run or work at manufacturing organizations to test the hypothesis. Though we certainly don’t have a statistically significant sample size, two organizations came back with the following:

Plastics molding company “We are specifically looking for a good tooling engineer, direct sales person, customer service people and efficient molders. When we asked the question, “Are there any skills shortages and if so, where? our contact replied, “[The] shortage is in tool room personnel. It’s hard to find someone with experience, or willing to get their hands dirty. Younger people want to work with computers and manage the department, but not really get in there to fix things.

Power plant spare parts manufacturer “I have noticed that many manufacturing companies in Chicago are hiring. Specifically, companies involved in large capital products (locomotives, large diesel engines, large industrial pumps, etc.). Here at our firm, we are hiring and have over 20 positions open for manufacturing management, engineering, estimating and skilled machinists. Machinists with CNC experience are very hard to find. Also, engineers with turbine component experience are extremely difficult to find.

So what gives?

We have a situation in which unemployment remains stubbornly high yet jobs go unfilled. Why? According to this Industry Week blog post, “Maybe it’s time to think about a ËœFuture Manufacturers of America’ organization, the author goes on to say, “adding another “M to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and training. The second “M is for manufacturing.

And therein lies perhaps a big chunk of the problem. Nobody wants to get their “hands dirty anymore. People want to “manage, not “make. They’d like to sit in a nice cozy office and work at the computer, instead of working on a shop floor (even though we have written extensively how the manufacturing industry will likely change over the coming years and become potentially a whole lot cleaner/”hands-off”) And yet, the projected job shortages affecting various segments of the manufacturing industry, in particular the aerospace market, loom large from the Industry Week article: “Boeing, for example, estimates that by 2028 the need for maintenance technicians alone will grow from over 180,000 to more than 300,000; with 137,000 needed in North America.

Has America become “too white collar for its own good? You decide.

–Lisa Reisman

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  • Interesting to also note that most of these same companies stopped offering cnc or tooling apprentiship programs and either outsourced or used contract labor. Companies need to help train workers to keep the job pool from stagnation.


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