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Manufacturers seek skilled workers

 

THIS STORY APPEARED IN
tbg
March 11, 2012
|By D.C. Denison

     
 

Earlier this year, Berkshire Manufactured Products won a lucrative aerospace contract that requires the Newburyport company to invest between $200,000 and $500,000 in equipment and hire two machinists.

 
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CNC machinist Computer numerical control machinists like Dustin Kellogg… (NANCY PALMIERI FOR THE BOSTON…)

 

Three months later, the equipment has been ordered but Berkshire is still seeking the two skilled workers to operate it - despite enlisting 11 employment agencies to find them. Berkshire has been through this before; last year it took eight employment agencies and three months to hire two machinists.

“It’s a major creative challenge to find skilled machinists,’’ said company president Steve Keches. “You don’t want to have the machines, and no one to operate them.’’

Such difficulty finding workers has become increasingly common among the state’s manufacturers as the sector rebounds from the recent recession, expanding production and adding jobs. From the Pioneer Valley to the North Shore to Southeastern Massachusetts, these companies say they can’t find workers with skills needed for a modern manufacturing industry that focuses on advanced products for technology, medical, aerospace, and defense sectors.

While Governor Deval Patrick and President Obama pursue policies to expand manufacturing, companies say the shortage of skilled labor is making it harder for them, the industry, and ultimately the state’s economy to grow.

Last year in Massachusetts, only health care had a greater need for workers than manufacturing, according to an analysis of job advertising by the University of Massachusetts’ Donahue Institute. Manufacturers advertised nearly 73,000 openings in 2011, compared to about 76,000 in health care.

If the state’s manufacturers can’t find skilled workers, said Barry Bluestone, an economist at Northeastern University, the industry could erode, diminishing what is the state’s fifth largest employment sector, and second largest in terms of payroll because of its high wages. While employment has shrunk dramatically in recent years, the sector still employs more than 250,000 and has added 2,700 jobs since the end of the recession.

“What could happen is that some manufacturers who want to expand won’t be able to,’’ Bluestone said. “Some others may reduce output because they can’t replace workers who retire. And, finally, some may decide that they just can’t operate here, and move their operations to China or India, where they can find the talent they need.’’

Tell Tool Inc., in Westfield, started in 1967 making small levers for the aircraft industry, but today manufactures complex aerospace parts of titanium, aluminum, magnesium, and other materials. Like Bluestone, Tell Tool president Dave Smith worries that the aerospace companies making up the bulk of his customers will move overseas if local contractors can’t find enough skilled workers to keep up with orders.

Recently the company, which employs about 140, held an open house to recruit workers. Eighty attended, but only two had the right skills.

“We’re having a tough time finding people,’’ Smith admitted. “If you could find me 10 machinists, I’d hire them yesterday.’’

Several factors are contributing to the shortage, including the sector’s recent rebound, the retirement of baby boomers, and a perception of manufacturing as dying, dirty industry that has discouraged young people from seeking careers in the field. Bluestone projects the industry could have more than 100,000 job openings in the next decade.

Underlying the skills shortage is the changing nature of manufacturing.

Assembly jobs moved offshore long ago, but Massachusetts has held on to high-end or precision manufacturing, which requires sophisticated, computer-controlled equipment to create prototypes, precisely machined parts to meet demanding tolerances, and workers who possess not only an understanding of materials and traditional shop procedures, but also solid skills in math and computer programming.

One of the most sought after workers, for example, is the computer numerical control, or CNC, machinist, who generally works behind a computer terminal loaded with thousands of dollars of software and can earn as much as $100,000 a year. Reading instructions from a blueprint, the machinist controls high-speed cutters that carve out parts with tolerances many times thinner than a human hair.

The skills required to run these machines often fall into a manufacturing generation gap. Many veteran machinists are uncomfortable with computer programming. Younger, more computer-savvy workers lack manufacturing experience and seek opportunities in other fields.

Of the 7,426 students who graduated from the state’s 38 vocational technical schools in 2011, just 545 came from programs focused on manufacturing skills.

“Manufacturing is just not a sexy industry,’’ said Scott Brown, senior vice president of operations at Berkshire Manufactured Products.

Paul Harrington, a labor economist and director of Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy in Philadelphia, said it isn’t surprising that many promising students never get on a manufacturing career track.

There are some very good jobs in advanced manufacturing, but there’s no getting around the fact that manufacturing has been shedding jobs for a very long time,’’ he said. “We’re in a boom cycle now, but there’s still an element of risk in a manufacturing career.’’

O-D Tool & Cutter in Mansfield, which cuts and sharpens the tools that machine shops and precision manufacturers use, has 20 employees. Company president Kevin O’Donnell said he’d like to add more, but when resumes come in, the applicants don’t have the requisite skills.

“You have to know your math, you have to know your algebra, and your trigonometry,’’ said O’Donnell. “And today, the people who know all that are more interested in computer science. They think manufacturing is obsolete.’’

The state has launched initiatives to try to change that perception, including the governor’s Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative, which aims to support the industry through workforce development and other efforts.

In addition, the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a publicly funded group that advises small manufacturers, has received a $4 million US Labor Department grant to work with Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Worcester Technical High School to train workers for the industry.

This year, the partnership expects to get 200 to 300 people started on manufacturing careers. “It’s not nearly enough to fill the skills gap,’’ said director Jack Healy, “but it’s a start.’’

Many companies also have their own training programs. The Custom Group, a precision manufacturing company in Woburn, has gone a step further. After struggling to find qualified employees, the company started its own internal training program in 2008. The following year, it started offering machining classes to the industry and general public. The cost for a 16-week class, 320 hours of training, is around $7,000.

Although these training initiatives will help, Steven Tamasi, chief executive of Boston Centerless, a Woburn specialty manufacturer, said the state needs a long-term approach to what has become a chronic problem. The message that there are high-paying, satisfying careers in manufacturing has to be communicated to young people consistently, and constantly refreshed to reach new generations of students, Tamasi said.

“Even if these programs are successful, we need long-term programs, funnels, and support,’’ he said. “Otherwise we’re going to be talking about the same thing three or four years from now.’’

 
 
 

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