Nationally, there are about 600,000 unfilled factory jobs. But despite high unemployment, many of these jobs are proving difficult for employers to fill.
That’s because American manufacturers are increasingly looking for workers with specialized skills. And those skills can take a long time for workers to learn.
Take GE Aviation in Hooksett, New Hampshire. With 720 workers, it’s one of the largest employers in the state. GE’s factory is super-advanced, making parts for commercial planes, military fighter jets, and Blackhawk helicopters. But it’s not the intricately machined parts that stand out when you wander the factory floor. Instead, it is a sea of gray hair.
Replacing The Retiring Workforce
“Our average employee’s 51, with about 26 years of experience,” says GE Plant Manager Doug Folsom. On a tour of the factory, Folsom stops at Gary Wintle’s station where he’s working on a machine with a big, yellow robotic arm.
“Gary’s a good example of one of our future problems, in that you’re probably going to be retiring in the next 10 years,” Folsom begins.
That makes Wintle laugh. “Easily,” he says, “Within the next five to seven years!”
And that’s the problem. In the next year alone, Folsom is looking to hire at least 30 people to replace workers with Wintle’s level of experience. And the company knows it won’t be easy.
“You can train someone within a matter of weeks to push a button,” Folsom says. “But to be able to understand the data that’s involved with all of that equipment, to understand how to troubleshoot that equipment…it takes years.”
New training models
Traditionally, manufacturers have used apprenticeship programs to fill skills gaps. Beset with cost-cutting directives, however, many have ended these programs. Mark Dodge, who coordinates the machining program at Nashua Community College, understands the dilemma companies face.
“The day of the company having apprentice programs has kind of come and gone,” Dodge says. “Yes, we can save some money by not having our apprentice program now, but, in five or 10 years, where are we going to get people with that experience?”
Dodge’s machine shop program is a good example. While the program draws many middle-aged men with some machining experience, there are a handful of fresh high school graduates in the program as well. One of them is 18-year old Mark Gallipeau. He briefly turns away from his workbench to explain why he’s taken up machining.
“It seems like there’s a lot of open positions,” Gallipeau says. “I’d’ just really like to get a job as soon as I get out.”Last year, President Obama made manufacturing training—and employing people like Mark Gallipeau—a key part of his jobs initiative. Last fall, New Hampshire’s Community College System got a $20 million dollar federal grant to ramp-up advanced manufacturing training for students. Critics have said the estimated number of open factory positions is heavily inflated, and companies are using the “skills gap” as an excuse to hold off hiring, beef up profit margins, and shift the cost of training to the public sector. But Chancellor Ross Gittell says it is shortsighted to complain about job training programs being funded by taxpayers.
“If we don’t help these companies replace their incumbent workers, those baby boomers who are retiring, they’re going to have to relocate their manufacturing facilities to where those workers are available.”
But there is no guarantee that all this money and all this training will result in new hires.
Do These Programs Work?
One skeptic is Dave Megenhardt, executive director of United Labor Agency in Cleveland. After more than 20 years of trying to hook up workers with jobs, Megenhardt says community college partnerships with big companies often fail. His own agency’s job placement rate with these programs is only 30 percent.
“It’s very hard for a community college, even when it’s working directly with a business, to try and anticipate what the skill need will be in six months, a year,” Megenhardt says. “Economies change, companies change, companies are bought and sold. I think it’s very much like trying to shoot an arrow into a cloud.”
Still, companies continue to need to fill job openings. Take Albany Engineered Composites in Rochester, New Hampshire. Spokesperson Susan Siegel says the company is expanding, and it needs new workers as soon as possible. She’s convinced that the Community College System’s new training program will do the job.
“We have a very aggressive ramp-up schedule to meet our customers’ needs,” Siegel says. “We’re not going to meet those deadlines and meet that timetable if we’re just sitting and waiting for qualified candidates to happen to find us.”
Doug Folsom isn’t waiting for candidates to happen to find GE Aviation, either. Folsom has been filling jobs by luring middle-aged workers from other shops. “Unfortunately,” he says, “the people that have the kind of skills we’re looking for, their age tends to be around, on average, 50 years old.”
But Folsom knows a longer term solution will be necessary. Which is why GE recently announced a new workforce training strategy that combines the new approach with the old one. The Hooksett plant will be starting up its first-ever apprenticeship program–one built with help from the community colleges in Nashua and Manchester, which will supply courses and non-credit training.
“We really have good alignment between education and industry,” says Community College Chancellor Ross Gittell. “But we need to strengthen that.”