Honor All Work

Over 12 million Americans are unemployed. Many of them survive on benefits paid for by U.S. taxpayers and former employers. Millions of other Americans have lost good paying jobs and now work part-time, or at lower paying jobs requiring little skill. Yet, the manufacturing industry has hundreds of thousands of job openings. How can this be?

A recent study performed for the Manufacturing Institute states there are as many as 600,000 openings for machinists, welders, die-setters, CNC programmers and team leaders in plants across the country. This may come as a surprise since the U.S. lost about 10 million manufacturing jobs in the last 10 years, but most of those were old-fashioned factory jobs. Some jobs were farmed out to other countries with lower labor costs, and a lot of them have vanished altogether, replaced by technology.

Jobs that were shipped overseas are returning to our shores because new technology improves productivity: we can make stuff faster and more affordably with fewer workers, thanks to technology. The new jobs don't require four-year degrees, but qualified applicants should demonstrate math and computer skills, and the ability and willingness to take direction. Although we have over 12 million Americans out of work, manufacturers are working overtime looking for good help. Amazing.

Here's the disconnect: they can't find enough qualified applicants. Some don't demonstrate the potential to learn, some fail drug tests, and some opt to remain on unemployment until benefits run out. Those with four-year degrees are up to the task, but employers fear they'll leave for brighter pastures when the a better job opens.

Another big problem is the stigma of manufacturing as a dirty field that requires overalls and workboots instead of suits and ties. There are qualified candidates out there, but they'd rather work at a desk in an office.

A skilled manufacturing worker at Boeing in Seattle interviewed by the Washington Post calls it the "glamour issue," observing young job prospects are more attracted to the jobs of designers who work in cubicles, listening to music on headphones, and working on a computer all day. "Plus, there's the uniform we wear on the floor," said Dave Van Dam, dressed in work pants and a shirt with his name embroidered in blue stitching on the chest. "You go into a restaurant dressed like this, and you get treated different than if you have a suit on."

If that's the case, either manufacturers need to review their dress code and consider letting workers on the floor wear something likely to impress restaurant personnel, or we need to collectively review our impressions of work and workers. By the way, Van Dam noted that the headphone-wearing cubicle workers earned $14 to $24 an hour compared to the $18 to $28 an hour earned by the guys with their names embroidered on their shirts.

Manufacturers producing parts for everything from the auto to aerospace sector are reaching out. Many employ recruiters who search for unskilled workers who may be trainable, and in some cases they offer signing bonuses. Other manufacturers are working with local high schools and community colleges to create classes teaching specific skills. Innovators have created programs like Wisconsin's Second Chance Partners which puts high school juniors and seniors into the workplace for six hours a day, learning real and marketable skills. There is also a nationwide non-profit group, Building America's Tomorrow, that promotes, to parents and students, the need for engineers and skilled manufacturing workers.

As always, the federal government response is to create a job training program. But we already have 47 such programs, all ineffective, that cost taxpayers $18 billion a year. It's up to industry, educators, and non-profits to reshape the image of manufacturing to more accurately reflect its new and current state that demands high-tech skills and creativity, and offers rewarding careers.

It's up to all of us to honor all work and all occupations, especially as an alternative to unemployment.