Greater skills expected for manufacturing jobs

Niala Boodhoo Jan 3, 2012

Stacey Vanek Smith: More than two million manufacturing jobs were lost during the recession. Companies have started hiring again — but they want workers who are more highly skilled than the ones they laid off. So they’re turning to local vocational programs for help.

From the Changing Gears media project, Niala Boodhoo reports.

Niala Boodhoo: Under the watchful eye of welding teacher Leo Suhre, students are cutting through sheets of metal at Richland Community College in Decatur, Illinois. The school only has enough shop space for 12 students at a time. But this year, there’s been so much demand for welding courses, the college began offering classes overnight.

Douglas Brauer: We go from midnight to 4 a.m.

That’s Richland’s Douglas Brauer — he’s a vice-president at the school. The college is building a new workplace training center that will more allow it to more than double the size of its vocational classes. In the meantime, the midnight welding class is especially popular with workers coming off second and third shifts at nearby Caterpillar, the maker of heavy construction and mining equipment.

Brauer says other local manufacturers are also looking for skilled workers.

Brauer: Everybody seems to be in a more of a hiring mode.

The jobless rate in American factories has dropped from a high of about 13 percent in January 2010 to less than 8 percent. But these days, manufacturers are looking for workers with sophisticated skill sets. That means not just more welders, but people with training in both mechanical and electrical engineering. One of the greatest needs is for machinists.

Symbol Job Training is a for-profit vocational school north of Chicago. It mostly teaches students what’s known as computerized numerical control — CNC. It runs most machines on today’s factory floors.

In this class, students learn CNC programming. John Zawojski says he hopes the course will help get him out of his current warehousing job.

John Zawojski: I was making pretty good money in my last job — got laid off. I haven’t been able to find that kind of pay anywhere else, so I got into the machining.

Zawojski hadn’t heard of machining until a counselor at the local state employment office told him it could be a good career. And that’s the problem with the employment pipeline, vocational instructors say. Most people may think there just aren’t any jobs in manufacturing any more.

In Chicago, I’m Niala Boodhoo for Marketplace.

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