By Steve Giegerich
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
---- — ST. PETERS, Mo. — In a three-year period that witnessed thousands of nearby residents suffer through unemployment, barely a week passed that J&S Tool didn’t advertise its intent to hire a qualified, full-time employee.
“If I didn’t read the papers, I wouldn’t know there was a recession,” said Shane Hammond, the president of the family-owned St. Peters manufacturer of grinding tools. “I’d laugh in your face if you told me millions of people are unemployed. I could call eight of our customers, and they’d tell you the same thing.”
As the 7.8 percent national unemployment rate demonstrates, cautious hiring managers in most economic sectors continue to restrain the efforts of 12.1 million Americans to get back to work.
Not so in manufacturing, a province with literally thousands of jobs going unfilled.
In fact, 82 percent of the respondents to a recent Manufacturing Institute survey indicated they would likely add payroll were it not for the dearth of qualified candidates in the pipeline for skilled production jobs. Eighty percent of respondents expected the pipeline will remain dry into the foreseeable future.
The shortage of replacements for millions of jobs soon to be vacated by baby boomers retiring from skilled trades poses a greater threat to U.S. manufacturing than foreign production or the prolonged recovery from the recession, according to executives, educators and industry advocates.
“If I was a company, I’d be scared to death about the future, especially if I depended on labor and technology,” said Stan Shoun, the president of Ranken Technical College in St. Louis.
Ranken, with 2,100 students, has seen enrollment jump by 30 percent in the past three years. It is nonetheless operating 400 students short of capacity.
The school currently places 98 percent of its graduates in full-time jobs.
Shoun and other industry officials pin the shortage of capable skilled workers on the good intentions of the Greatest Generation who, in the interest of wanting a better life for their children, steered baby boomers away from careers that required punching a factory time clock.
Their children, the baby boomers, consequently earned undergraduate and graduate degrees, moved into white-collar jobs and raised their own children with the full expectation that they would attend college as well.
The continuum ignored a basic tenet. “Not everyone is college material,” said Hammond, who himself left higher education after six months to join the company founded by his father in 1986.
In the K-12 system, baby boomer parents had a willing ally in emphasizing college over trades.
Shop class, once mandatory, is now an option at most middle and high schools — if it’s offered at all because of budget constraints.
“Most kids are not being pulled into the skills trades,” said John Haake, the president of Titanova, a St. Charles laser manufacturer. “There’s a huge disconnect with the education system.”
Dig a little deeper, and manufacturers also cite pop culture for dampening enthusiasm for careers in manufacturing.
Piqued by the prospect of assembling a motorcycle by reality television series such as “American Chopper,” young audiences nonetheless demonstrate little interest in participating in the production of the internal components that allow the customized bikes to roar down the highway.
“Not everyone wants to make one of these,” Hammond said, holding a small milled steel piece that keeps knee replacements aligned. “They don’t want to hear, ‘I need you to run 4,000 of these today.’ “
What Shoun calls the stigma attached to manufacturing runs counter to prevailing sentiments about a sector that has added 500,000 jobs to the economy in the past two years.
Manufacturing Institute President Jennifer McNelly reports that complaints about Chinese-made goods dominate her discussions with cab drivers at every stop she makes in travels across the U.S.
“I constantly hear, ‘We don’t make anything in this country,’ “ McNelly said recently at a seminar on new manufacturing in Florissant, Mo.
What many fail to understand, she said, is that today’s U.S. manufacturers are by and large not producing clothes, trinkets and mass market items. “We’re producing value-added products,” she said. “The cars we drive, the airplanes we drive. That’s what’s driving this country.”
Alan Spell, the research manager for the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, joined McNelly in dispelling the notion that U.S. manufacturing has lost its manufacturing edge to China.
“We’re not competing for low-skilled products anymore,” Spell said in an interview following his presentation to a new manufacturing symposium.
“That ship has sailed. We’re competing for customized products that need to get to the market fast.”
And maintaining American dominance in the production of big-ticket items remains a high priority. Another Manufacturing Institute survey measured the disconnect between the stated allegiance to U.S. production and actual commitment to the cause.
The poll revealed that 86 percent of Americans believe U.S. manufacturing is “very important to their standard of living,” while 79 percent said a strong manufacturing base should be a national priority.
Asked what type of 1,000-job business would be best located in their community, the respondents put manufacturing at the top of the list.
Yet only a third of the same respondents said they would encourage their own children to pursue jobs in manufacturing.
“Americans in general think we need to place a greater emphasis on manufacturing careers. It’s a priority. But when they look it as a career for their kids, it’s a different thing,” said Rod Nunn, vice chancellor for workforce and community development at St. Louis Community College.
“There’s a perception that (manufacturing) is dangerous and dirty, when the reality is new manufacturing has more dials and controls than most Nintendos and Game Boys,” McNelly emphasized.
Officials say the manufacturing pipeline will continue to run dry, at the nation’s peril, unless parents, schools and the industry step up the effort to reverse the message, delivered by two generations, that all children must graduate college to succeed.
Solis said it’s imperative for economic sustainability that young people “find their way” to positions in manufacturing.
McNelly says promoting the industry — as several North Carolina manufacturers did during a recent bus tour of schools there — is one step in that direction.
But above all else, Shoun says today’s middle and high school students need to understand that 21st century manufacturing bears little resemblance to the jobs held by their grandparents following the second world war.
“When you say ‘occupational vocation,’ the technology of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s comes to mind,” said Shoun. “The reality is that it’s all high technology now. We need to do a better job of showing not only kids but their parents as well what it means to be a machinist or an automotive technician — that it’s just as complex as being an engineer.”