Hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs in manufacturing are left empty because many people lack the skills to fill positions as machinists or welders.

Detroit is ground zero for manufacturing in this country. And the city’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average. That means, Detroit has plenty of people looking for work.

Too bad they’re not right for the available jobs -- positions advertised along the roadside on Help Wanted signs. Jobs that often go unfilled because Detroit manufacturers have a shortage of skilled workers.

Jeannine Kunz is director of professional development at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. “We’re a manufacturing hotbed. And yet, some of the basics in manufacturing -- the core jobs -- you can’t find anyone,” says Kunz. “In some cases, smaller manufacturers are actually having to turn down work because they’re not able to get the machinists or the welders to actually produce the parts.”

Kunz estimates there more than 600,000 open jobs for skilled workers. And the shortage is expected to get worse.

“The labor pool that is unemployed right now is not possessing the skills that are required to do the jobs of today and tomorrow in manufacturing," says Kunz. "The jobs in manufacturing are becoming much more skilled and complex.”

Companies like Caterpillar have established their own in-house training programs. Other companies hire students right out of vocational school. Dave Lynnes trains welders in Fargo, N.D.

“We have companies calling, looking to hire 20, 30, 40 welders at a time in North Dakota here,” says Lynnes.

A rookie welder can make $15 an hour. Experienced welders earn more. Harlan Rost worked as a welder for more than 30 years.

“I was making $18 an hour. And that was back in Minnesota in a town that was not noted for high wages,” says Rost.

He loves welding, but the job requires working around poisonous fumes and standing for hours on end.

“Most of the welding jobs take a toll on, usually, the knees and the back,” Rost says.

Rost had to retire when that toll caught up with his body. He would like to keep working. And there is plenty of demand for skilled welders.

But it’s not only the skills that manufacturers want. Harlan Rost is looking for an employer who will hire him despite his work-related disability: he can’t stand for eight or ten hours on his feet.

“As welders get older, skills don’t count as much because a lot of employers are not willing to accommodate any disabilities you have,” says Rost.

For those who can handle the physical side of the job, there will lots of opportunities for skilled workers, like welders. As the economy picks up steam, companies are expected to add as many as a million skilled manufacturing jobs.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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