Finding qualified workers still a problem for local manufacturers

This Manufacturing Day, local companies say they need younger workers with more technical skills, who will show up on time ready to solve problems and work for customers. That’s because many of today’s workers are approaching retirement age, experts say.

Today’s manufacturer owners said their goal is to dispel the long-outdated myth that all you need to get a job in manufacturing is a strong back.

“The truth is, you need a brain,” said Patricia Lee, spokeswoman for the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International.

More than 800 companies nationwide, including at least eight in the Cincinnati area, opened their doors Friday to the public — and more importantly, to students — to educate them about the industry.

Manufacturing employs more than 106,000 workers in the Cincinnati metropolitan including Butler and Warren counties, according to figures provided by Michael Jones, research assistant professor for University of Cincinnati’s Economics Center.

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Ohio is one of five states with more than 500,000 manufacturing jobs in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Employment in California, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois accounts for 32.5 percent of all manufacturing jobs in the U.S., according to the Census.

The problem, manufacturing owners say, is the average age of manufacturing employees is above 50.

If there’s a message behind the national observance of “MFG Day” or Manufacturing Day, it’s just that, said Lee, who works for the Rockford, Ill.-based organization that helped launch the event nationally for the first time last year.

“It’s not your grandfather’s manufacturing anymore,” Lee said.

Modern manufacturing is technically driven, said Matt Lavoie, spokesman for the trade group National Association of Manufacturers, founded in Cincinnati.

The average hourly wage for manufacturing jobs in 2010 was $29.75, compared to $27.47 on average for non-manufacturing jobs, according to the Census.

“Not only is it a good paying job, but with the investments and developments in the sector it’s a secure job,” Lavoie said.

“There’s a skills gap that exists, but also there’s a perception gap and both are not easily solved over a year,” Lavoie said. “You change perception, you get more people interested, they follow the education path and that’s what fills the jobs.”

Even in a tough job market, the perception that manufacturing is on the decline, and that plants are dark, dirty, difficult places to work keeps applicants at bay for job openings, said David Seilkop, vice president of sales and manufacturing for Epcor Foundries, a division of Seilkop Industries Inc.

It’s also hard to find a pool of applicants with a good work ethic, Seilkop said.

Seilkop Industries is struggling to fill four openings for computer numerical control (CNC) machine operators and programmers, he said.

They are looking for applicants with math skills, basic shop skills and understanding of how to read a blueprint. Seilkop will pay to train new hires to run computer-operated equipment. The trouble is finding potential hires who show up consistently and on time, Seilkop said.

“The people don’t exist,” Seilkop said. “It’s not glamorous, but glamorous doesn’t mean it doesn’t pay.”

Seilkop, headquartered in the Cincinnati area, has four divisions — a tool and die company, aluminum foundry (Epcor), pattern shop and the machine shop Hamilton Precision LLC. Hamilton Precision workers burn and cut steel plates to a finished product, grind steel plates to different thicknesses, and repair roll equipment used by steel mills.

Seilkop bought Hamilton Precision, 490 Joe Nuxhall Blvd., Hamilton, in 2009.

The lack of qualified workers makes graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math in high demand, said Paul Brannon, original equipment manufacturer sales manager for Rockwell Automation Inc.

Students on Friday visited Rockwell Automation’s West Chester Twp. sales office, 9355 Allen Road. Rockwell, based in Milwaukee, Wisc., makes control panels and develops software that run machines used in manufacturing. Rockwell supplies companies that make manufacturing equipment.

The local office employs a sales team and technical consultants that work with customers on new products, Brannon said.

“As manufacturing gets smarter and manufacturing plants get more and more automated, we need to continue to develop a work force with the skills to support that,” Brannon said said. “We are going to need to pull from a higher educated work force and so do our customers.”

Manufacturing jobs were declining before the recession, but the job loss was accelerated by the economic downtown beginning in 2008.

“We’ve stopped the bleeding, but the growth in manufacturing jobs is painfully slow,” Jones of UC said.

More than 120,000 people in the Cincinnati market worked in manufacturing in 2008, according to data from Jones. The level of manufacturing employment is now about 106,600.

“I don’t think the painfully slow growth is just limited to the manufacturing sector. We’ve in fact seen it across the entire labor market,” Jones said.

“Do I think we’ll ever recoup the manufacturing jobs lost?” Jones said. “I think we’ll see a growth in high-tech manufacturing and an increasing decline in low-tech manufacturing which can be provided by lower cost labor across the globe.”

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