Sun, Oct 16, 2011 - Page 11 News List

Dearth of skilled workers haunts manufacturing

By Lucia Mutikani  /  Reuters, Washington

US manufacturers are failing to fill thousands of vacant jobs — surprising when 14 million people are searching for work.

Technology giant Siemens Corp, the US arm of Germany’s Siemens AG, has over 3,000 jobs open all over the country. More than half require science, technology, engineering and math-related skills.

Other companies report job vacancies, ranging from six to 200, with some positions open for nine months or more.

Manufacturing is hurt by a dearth of skilled workers.

“What we have been saying for quite a while is that even though there is a high unemployment rate, it’s very difficult to find skilled people,” said Jeff Owens, president of ATS, a manufacturing consulting services company.

A survey by ManpowerGroup found that a record 52 percent of US employers have difficulty filling critical positions within their organizations — up from 14 percent last year.

Owens said his company, which counts manufacturing behemoths Caterpillar and Motorola among its clients, has at any given time about 200 open positions.

“We are pro-actively working to fill them. It can take 90 to a hundred days, probably, to fill them,” he said. “We are creating jobs. We just don’t necessarily have the right people to fill them.”

On average, companies usually take seven weeks to fill job openings.

MISMATCH

Most of the jobs hard to fill are for skilled trades, Internet technology, engineers, sales representatives and machine operators.

Yet US colleges are producing fewer math and science graduates as students favor social sciences, whose workload is perceived to be manageable, leading to a skills mismatch.

Math, engineering, technology and computer science students accounted for about 11.1 percent of college graduates in 1980, according to government data. That share dropped to about 8.9 percent in 2009.

An aging population of skilled workers is adding to the problem. As the baby boomers retire, there are fewer skilled workers available to replace them.

“Many of the younger kids that are coming out of college have been discouraged to go into manufacturing,” said Dennis Bray, president and CEO of Contour Precision Group. “A lot of the college graduates have chosen a curriculum and degree that does not give them the necessary science and math skills to be of immediate benefit to companies such as ours.”

Contour Precision, based in Clover, South Carolina, does contract work for the energy and aerospace industries. It is currently looking for six technicians. It has had positions open since last year.

Unemployment in manufacturing is at 8.4 percent, below the overall rate of 9.1 percent. According to the Labor Department’s latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, there were 240,000 open jobs in manufacturing in August, up 38.7 percent from a year ago. The problem is sufficiently serious that businesses are pushing Congress to address the issue of visas and help them hire more high-skilled foreigners.

STRUCTURAL PROBLEM

These companies’ inability to fill open jobs suggests that part of the unemployment problem confronting the nation could be more of a structural nature rather than the result of a downturn in the business cycle.

Two years after the end of the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, about 14 million Americans are still unemployed.

Last month, nearly 45 percent of them had been out of work for six months or more. The longer people are out of the workforce, the more dated their skills become, making it even harder to reintegrate them into the labor market.

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