Some Middle Georgia manufacturers say it’s challenging to fill trade jobs

lmorris@macon.comJune 21, 2014 

Even though new graduates are looking for jobs and there are still plenty of people on the unemployment rolls, some manufacturers say it’s still tough to find workers who are qualified or trainable.

“We’ve been having challenges finding workers period, even those we could train,” said Steve Kruger, president of L.E. Schwartz & Son Inc. “But there are some specialties, welding for example, that are harder trades to hire for because of the type of welding we do.”

Kruger was referring specifically to workers for Schwartz Precision Manufacturing, an L.E. Schwartz subsidiary that employs about 35 people. The company makes precision metal parts for multiple industries such as transportation and heating/ventilating.

“There are certifications involved in the training that we have to have in certain types of welding,” Kruger said. “Just to find the right individual to perform that has been somewhat of a challenge. ... We’ve been able to do it. It’s just more challenging. ... There is always competition for good people.”

Kruger’s experience mirrors results from a recent survey conducted by The Manufacturing Institute and Accenture, a management consulting company. The survey, conducted between August 2013 and January 2014, included a diverse range of manufacturing companies in the United States.

More than 75 percent of manufacturers surveyed reported a moderate to severe shortage of skilled workers, and more than 80 percent reported a moderate to severe shortage of highly skilled workers.

An entry-level welder, according to the report, must not only master the craft of welding itself but also must master basic trigonometry, geometry, metallurgy and blueprint reading.

“Acquiring the necessary skills to reach the master tradesman level requires years of additional experience and coursework,” the report said. “Skilled welders command between $40,000 (and) $70,000 in yearly salary and are in high demand across multiple industries including manufacturing, oil and gas and construction.”

While for a number of years manufacturers have moved their operations to other countries, it is still a significant part of Georgia’s economy.

More than 9,000 manufacturing facilities are located in Georgia, providing 351,910 jobs and generating more than $18.5 billion in wages in the state each year, according to a news release from the state in April.

Trade jobs good option for students

Today’s manufacturing is not the same as it was during its heyday 50 or 60 years ago. Some manufacturers now use 3D printing, cloud computing and other customized processes to meet the demand of the 21st century global economy.

However, there is “no efficient mechanism to match supply and demand within the labor market, leading to systemic inefficiency,” according to a report issued last week by the University of Virginia Miller Center Commission. The report focused specifically on small- and medium-sized manufacturers.

“The pipeline of skilled workers is impeded by a K-12 culture that often stigmatizes workforce training and careers in manufacturing, which then results in a lack of collaboration between private enterprise and higher education,” the report stated.

Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission, said he is aware manufacturers are having trouble filling some skilled positions and agreed that more education is needed.

“There does need to be a push, starting in high school, to educate students, teachers and parents about the opportunities in manufacturing and the skills necessary,” Topping said. “We are working with Hutchings Career Center to help them identify pathways for students” to better address the needs of local companies.

Central Georgia Technical College also is addressing manufacturing needs, he said.

The college, which has campuses throughout Middle Georgia, has been preparing students for work in programs of study related to manufacturing for more than 45 years, Becky Lee, vice president of economic development program for Central Georgia Tech, said in an email.

“CGTC offers degree, diploma, and technical certificate programs that supply the workforce for central Georgia’s strategic industries: advanced manufacturing, aerospace, healthcare, life sciences, logistics and distribution,” Lee said.

Brian Thomson, president of L.H. Thomson Co., said “from time to time we do have a harder time finding the exact skills we’re looking for. We have been fortunate to find machine operators who have gone through Central Georgia Technical College.”

L.H. Thomson makes high-end bicycle parts in one division of its company and does contract manufacturing, making parts for the aerospace industry, in its other division. It has a total of about 95 employees.

The company also has been able to hire “some real talented Mercer (University) graduates with engineering degrees, and they have been easy to train,” he said.

The company put off some improvement projects for two years, “due to a skills shortage,” but it’s now been able to get those projects done.

The Central Georgia Technical College Foundation, with the help of local grants, has recently purchased the former Toys R Us building on Eisenhower Parkway, Lee said. It will open early next year as the Charles H. Jones Advanced Technology Center, with advanced manufacturing and pre-engineering being the core of the building.

Some companies offer in-house training

Manufacturing jobs are not as attractive to young people as they used to be, Jessica Kennett Cork, manager of public relations and communications for YKK Corp. of America, said in an email. YKK makes zippers and commercial architectural products in Macon and Dublin.

“YKK has experienced the same skilled talent shortage as other American manufacturers,” Cork said. “We especially have difficulty filling specific engineering and technical positions such as machine maintenance.”

Since YKK actually makes its own machinery, its Macon plant has its own in-house training facility for technical staff, she said.

“We also encourage employees to seek additional education in all areas, not only to improve our processes but to improve themselves as members of the wider community,” Cork said.

The company reimburses employees up to $3,000 annually to further their education, job related or not, she said.

Cork said YKK first tries to find people with the “precise skills” it needs and then broadens its search for people who are trainable.

When Schwartz Precision is looking for workers, it doesn’t necessarily try to find workers who already have a manufacturing background.

“We’re looking for good work ethic,” Kruger said. “We’re looking for drug-free employees and someone who’s willing to learn. If you get those three components, you can train folks to do what we do.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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