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High demand for skilled laborers despite bad economy

UPublish story by Alyssa DeGeorge

The unemployment rate decreased to 7.8 percent in September, according to the most recent Employment Situation released Oct. 5 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the debate of how to best fix the economy continues with 11.6 million people still unemployed. The manufacturing industry, however, is desperately seeking skilled workers.

Brad Ehrhart, president of the Portage Development Board, explained that changes in technology, the culture surrounding education and problems with work ethic all play a role in this potentially surprising issue of demand.

With so much attention on outsourcing, Ehrhart said there is a perception that the manufacturing industry in the United States is dying.

“We didn’t stop manufacturing, we just changed,” he said. “We went from very labor intensive to very capital intensive.”

This change requires manufacturing workers with a different skill-set. Machines are doing the jobs that people used to do, but now companies need someone with the knowledge and ability to use the new technologies.

“What you need now is someone who can program the machines, tear it down, troubleshoot, set up for another run, because you’re trying to get the most you can out of the capital,” Ehrhart said.

Although this is a national issue, it’s especially prevalent in Ohio, said Lockwood Reynolds, an economics professor at Kent State.

“Because of the infrastructure that was in place here to do manufacturing, you do see kind of a boom in skilled manufacturing around here,” he said. “The problem, of course, is whether or not there’s actually any workers here who can actually do these jobs, because it’s not the same job that their parents had.”

Ehrhart said it’s hard for Portage County manufacturing companies to meet the needs of their clients.

“I would say that they’re hard pressed at the very best,” he said. “They’re going to try to make do the best they can, but there is demand right now for skilled workers.”

When the economy “turned upside down” in 2008, Joe Zeno, president and CEO of ACS Industries Inc. in Kent, said he and other manufacturers were forced to reconsider the way their companies were run.

“We kind of got a little fat, dumb and happy. Things [had been] really good and maybe we weren’t quite as focused as we needed to be,” he said. “We were in the reinventing phase again, and we’re still doing that. Every couple of years as things are changing, we’re reinventing again.”

Despite the major transformation, Zeno said he views advances in technology as opportunities to expand his company and produce more efficiently. The workers replaced by machines take on new roles.

“As a result of bringing that technology in, we’ve never put people on the street,” Zeno said.

Welders are trained to become CNC welding robotic operators.

With these changes, manufacturing companies look drastically different from what they used to, said Jenny Stupica, human resources generalist at SSP Fittings in Twinsburg. The environment used to be dimly lit, poorly ventilated and made up of low-skill workers.

Today’s companies use high-tech machines run by operators with strong math and computer skills, she said.

“We've got an image problem,” Stupica said. “People imagine manufacturing as it was 20 to 30 years ago, and it's so drastically different now.”

Because a large portion of the public doesn’t understand how things have changed, manufacturers are struggling to find workers with the necessary skills, Reynolds said.

“A lot of students think of manufacturing in the old sense where you only need a high school degree,” he said. “Now you need to know how to operate fancy machines, so that requires something along the lines of an applied technology degree and a very specific set of skills.”

Randy Kline, a guidance counselor at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, said most students enter high school with the intention of continuing to a four-year college.

Yet almost 40 percent of juniors and seniors at the high school participate in the school’s career technical programs, which include cosmetology, computer aided design and manufacturing and forestry and landscape management.

Parents encourage their children to go to college because they believe the more education the student has, the better off they will be, Kline said.

“They think of the old context—vocational ed—like if you couldn’t hack it academically, you took one of these—and that’s long gone,” he said. “It’s great they want what’s best, but we try to help them understand that there are many varied opportunities.”

One of those opportunities may be Maplewood Career Center in Ravenna. Students at Maplewood earn certificates in trades such as cosmetology, construction and computer technology.

Despite the immediate opportunities available to these students when they graduate from the two-year program, superintendent Randall Griffith said students and professionals in the trades often lack a sense of pride because of the cultural emphasis on a four-year degree.

Griffith said Mike Rowe, the host of the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” explained it best in his testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation May 11, 2011.

“We’ve elevated the importance of higher education to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled as ‘alternative.’ Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and really valuable on-the-job training opportunities as vocational consolation prizes best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about creating millions of shovel-ready jobs for a society that doesn’t really encourage people to pick up a shovel,” Rowe said.

These trade-industry jobs pay well, said Griffith. According to a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, there are 29 million jobs in the United States that pay $35,000 or more and don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

Acquiring skills in a specific trade can be an extremely beneficial investment for the future no matter what the student decides to do, Griffith said. Some Maplewood graduates are able to use their skills to earn money to continue on to college. If after earning that four-year degree, there are no jobs immediately available in their field, they can still use that trade to earn a living, he said.

“You have that to fall back on forever,” Griffith said. “It doesn’t go away.”

Patrick Freed, a freshman business and communications major at Kent State Stark, has worked at JB Manufacturing in Kent for four and a half years ordering parts and running machines. He said that often the workers who come from two-year schools have the skills to program the machines but aren’t prepared for the more hands-on tasks.

“It's like teaching someone how to weld, but not letting them weld,” he said.

When it comes to unemployment rates, the statistics do support the cultural push for a four-year degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation, the unemployment rate for people 25 years and older in August was 12 percent for those with less than a high school diploma, 8.8 percent for high school graduates, 6.6 percent for people with some college or an associate degree and 4.1 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Freed said he thinks it’s always good to have a college degree, but recognized that he’s gained valuable skills from his job at JB Manufacturing. He hopes to own a company someday.

“Just because you went to school doesn't mean you know everything. There's school smart and street smart,” he said. “Just talking to adults who are actually professionals at what they do gives me more experience about how to handle situations and communicate with people.”

John Anderson, owner of JB Manufacturing, said he’s looking for skill and good work ethic above all else.

“College education will give you the opportunity to get ahead,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily give you a job that makes you ahead. You still have to work for it. But if they went to college for four years, put in their time, paid their money, you know they’re going to be a good worker because they want to get ahead.”

A major issue manufacturing companies face is that applicants are lacking the soft skills necessary for any job. They have poor work ethic, show up late, are addicted to drugs or don’t have basic math and writing skills.

“Most people who come in here applying for a job can’t pass a drug test,” Zeno said. “We get people that can’t even spell the name of the town they live in. It’s appalling.”

Maplewood’s faculty try to instill some of these values in their students, Griffith said, but he recognizes that it’s a major issue.

“You can teach them software programming and everything else, but if they don’t show up to work, it doesn’t really matter,” he said.

With such a high demand in the industry, however, Griffith said workers such as welders, can sometimes get away with poor soft skills by going from job to job. If they’re fired from one company, they know another is looking to hire.

As the demand for manufacturing workers increases, so does the emphasis on work ethic. Manufacturers recognize that it’s rare to find applicants with the exact skills they’re looking for.

“We’re more looking for good workers. We can teach them how to be a good machinist,” Anderson said. “Anytime a good skilled person would walk through the door, I’d hire them. I can always make room for good skill.”

Zeno said he’s willing to train someone if he knows they are a committed worker. If one of his team members wants to complete their college degree, he’s willing to help them do that.

“Today you have to make investments in people,” he said.

And in an industry that is largely based on technology, workers must continually update their skills. Many manufacturing companies have training programs to improve their workers’ abilities.

This is the way the economy is going to stay, said Zeno.

“We are in the new normal right now,” he said. “We’re not going to be going back to how we were 10 or 20 years ago. It’s not going to happen. It’s a hyper-competitive economy and it’s hyper-changeable. Where in the past you could plan, it’s tough to plan now. You can prepare, but it’s tough to plan.”

Stupica is thankful that more people are starting to recognize the high demand for skilled workers and its effect on the economy.

“It's brought to light this disconnect so that people can start working on it,” she said. “Now it's just a matter of ‘Okay, we know we have a problem. We have to figure out how to fix it.’ It's bringing folks together to work together so we are able to have a pipeline so we can align everything as far as what we need, how we need to offer it and what kind of training is going to be basic across the board.”

If we can solve these problems, Reynolds said it could be an opportunity to benefit Ohio.

“People are thinking this is a way that the rust belt could sort of see its economic situation improve,” he said. “The rust belt has been the rust belt for 30 to 40 years as employment has declined. So in some sense, this is a very good trend for the area.”

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