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U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics/Sydnie Abel/MEDILL

The number of U.S. manufacturing jobs appears to have bottomed after hitting a low point of 11.5 million in 2010, a 41 percent drop from the 1979 peak.

Manufacturers reach out to students to confront growing skills gap

by Sydnie Abel
Oct 15, 2013

When Thermal Laminating Corp. threw open its doors to 60 local eighth-graders earlier this month, the Evanston-based maker of laminated pouches for passports and IDs hoped to convince the students that manufacturing doesn’t mean working in dark factory rooms using dirt-caked machines anymore.

“It was an eye-opener to a lot of them to see how things are made, that many of these things are made locally,” said Debbie Levitan, president. “They learned that manufacturing pays more than a lot of other industries.”

More than 800 other manufacturers in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico joined Levitan in the hope that the second annual Manufacturing Day on Oct. 4 would get students excited about career opportunities in an industry that struggles to attract qualified workers.

“Manufacturing is truly what made America strong,” Levitan said. “We need to bring it back.”
Some 90 percent of respondents in a 2012 report by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Development LLC said manufacturing is important to economic prosperity, but ranked it behind technology, energy, healthcare and communications in order of preference.

On average, U.S. manufacturing workers bring in around $77,000 in yearly salary and benefits, roughly 19 percent more than non-manufacturing workers, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The report also found that only 43 percent of respondents believe that a career in manufacturing provides stable job security.

Tom Ward, owner of Ward Manufacturing Co., a producer of progressive dies and drawn metal stamping in Evanston, said he believes this number should be much higher.

“It’s a good career, that’s just the long and short of it,” Ward said. “I have employees that have been here for over 40 years. They own their own homes and put kids through college.”

In fact, Ward, who employs 47 workers, estimated that for every new job created at his company, two or three other jobs could potentially be created at any of his hundreds of suppliers.

So why aren’t more young people flocking to the manufacturing industry?

Rick Short, director of marketing communications at Indium Corp., a producer of materials used in the electronics assembly industry, says it all starts with a perception gap that doesn’t jive with his company’s clean, sophisticated facility in Utica, New York.

“When people think of a factory, the media drowns us in this clichéd image that factories are dangerous; that there’s molten iron pouring out of a cauldron. They say that manufacturing is woeful, dreadful,” Short said.

This notion is just incorrect, Short asserted, but people believe it’s a reality and as a result, the industry has developed a skills gap that leaves too many vacant jobs with no one to fill them.

Manufacturing in the U.S., and especially in the Midwest, underwent a wrenching restructuring in the 1980s that meant the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, as new global competitors in steel and autos grabbed market share from the U.S.

At the height of the U.S. auto industry’s predominance in 1979, there were nearly 19.5 million manufacturing jobs, according to a 2011 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2010, the number had shrunk approximately 41 percent to 11.5 million. Workers discouraged with constant layoffs and factory closings gave up on the industry.

Fast-forward to today, and manufacturing in the U.S. is on the upswing, directly employing slightly more than 12 million workers in the first half of 2013, according to the BLS.  But the kinds of workers needed are very different than those in the industry 40 years ago.

Modern manufacturing jobs require people who are adept in science, math, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) said Jim Nelson, the vice president of external affairs at the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. Nelson says that all too often, students aren’t equipped with these skills because education starts to drift away from STEM subjects around the fourth grade.

“Coupled with that is the simple fact that most of our K through eighth grade teachers aren’t specialized in these areas,” Nelson said. “Teachers report they have fears of teaching math and science because they struggled themselves with it.”

Manufacturing Day and other grassroots efforts grew from this growing skills gap, spear-headed by the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association, along with the National Association of Manufacturers and the Manufacturing Institute.

“It’s my dream that we will succeed in showing a large number of people that manufacturing is alive and well,” said Patricia Lee, director of marketing at the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association. “We want to show people that the stuff we make is important, it’s stuff we can be proud of and it’s stuff we can make better than anyone else in the world.”

Others think there’s more hands-on work to be done.

“It needs to be bigger than just talks and presentations,” Ward said. “Years ago there was a massive apprenticeship program and it was coveted. You had a job right out of it, a good job…but there is no program today, because emphasis on manufacturing is so belittled; slowly but surely, the kids started to become disinterested.”

Short said he hopes the biggest takeaway for students who attended his Oct. 4 presentation at the SUNY Institute of Technology is that the manufacturing industry is made up of an array of different jobs that must all function together, much like a football team.

“On the field, you better be smart and moving,” Short said. “And if you stand flat-footed in football, you’ll get hurt. Manufacturing is like that too. The game always goes goes on.”