Roger Ingbretsen, a consultant hired by the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, says the manufacturing sector here could be headed toward a labor crisis because the current and future work force lacks basic math, reasoning, and English skills.
Also, fewer people are applying for manufacturing jobs, and fewer young adults are enrolled in vocational programs geared to help them secure careers in that sector, Ingbretsen says.
There is a gap between the baby boomers, who are about to retire, the people in their mid-40s, and young people in the work force, Ingbretsen says. He says labor supply for manufacturers is going to be a real problem in the near future.
Ingbretsen surveyed nearly 50 manufacturers and education training centers in the Spokane region to learn what competencies and skills are needed by the current and future manufacturing work force.
The project covered job requirements from entry level to engineering level jobs and identified gaps between manufacturers needs and what the education system offers, says Rich Hadley, president and CEO of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Its a general statement, but the education system is not preparing people for the work force, Ingbretsen says. There is no easy solution to what I personally think is a societal problem. We can all look in the mirror.
Ingbretsen will present his report to the chamber on June 9. The chamber will review the study and decide on a course of action, Hadley says.
Finding qualified applicants
Many in the manufacturing sector say Ingbretsens assessments are accurate.
The labor pool for manufacturing jobs is minimal, and very few applicants are qualified, says Mike MacKay, president of MacKay Manufacturing Inc., a longtime Spokane-area precision machine shop. Its not uncommon to have an application for a machinist position, and they cant spell the word machinist. That doesnt mean they will be disqualified. Spelling isnt high on our list.
Randy Quintero, director of human resources at Huntwood Industries Inc., of Liberty Lake, has a similar view, and is particularly troubled that many high school graduates lack basic math skills.
Huntwood Industries, a wooden cabinet manufacturer that employs roughly 800 people, expects its workers to be able to read a tape measure, understand fractions, and use the decimal system. Many younger and experienced applicants are lacking in some or all of those basic skills, Quintero says.
Ive been with this company for 15 years, and it has gotten worse, Quintero says. Currently, the fresh minds out of high school just arent familiar with many of the important aspects of math. They also struggle understanding English. Resident Americans struggle to read. They have to be able to read in order to make sense of written instructions.
As a result, the company is shying away from hiring people fresh out of high school, and instead is hiring older and more experienced workers.
More and more, I am gravitating toward people with life skills and a history of work, Quintero says. Its less of a risk to the company to hire people with a proven track record than to take a chance on somebody that doesnt have those.
Experienced workers also are preferred because they are better at abstract thinking, problem solving, and have a better work ethic, while many younger applicants dont seem to have the work ethic thats expected by the company, Quintero says.
I see it happening in the cultural mindset, he says. Work ethic is not being taught by example. I believe that you take honor in any position that you expect to be paid for. I think that element is missing today.
John Crow, president and co-owner of Lloyd Industries, a Spokane-based designer, manufacturer, and distributor of precision-engineered pizza-making equipment, says its true that qualified applicants are harder to find now.
Lloyd Industries, which employs about 30 people, conducted two national job searches to fill two openings because it couldnt find qualified applicants here, Crow says.
The good guys are harder to find, he says. You can go through 50 people to find the one you want to hire.
Crow, however, believes wages are an important part of the equation.
I wonder how many of these people complaining about the lack of good employees would be willing to work for $7.50 an hour, he says. Ive heard about Spokane businesses moving to Idaho because they can pay less minimum wage. Shame on them. If you cant afford to pay a just wage, you shouldnt be in business.
Ingbretsen says most manufacturers he surveyed pay between $10.50 and $11.50 for entry level jobs plus benefits. He says wages go much higher for skilled workers and managers.
Fixing the problems
Hadley suggests that some type of academy or other program could be created that would teach concentrated math and team skills.
Huntwood Industries Quintero says high schools and community colleges should reemphasize math skills and teach people what to expect in manufacturing jobs.
We need a stronger emphasis within the education community, Hadley says. We need to communicate better with them about what skill requirements are needed for good manufacturing careers.
Most manufacturers agree that their industry isnt flashy and that it mostly isnt promoted by high schools here.
MacKay says the problem is that many high school counselors arent familiar with manufacturing, and thus, they dont promote that career track.
Lloyd Industries Crow says the media portray manufacturing jobs negatively and should change their focus.
Most stories about manufacturing are fairly negative because they only report the number of layoffs, he says. I dont think we get the good press about good high-paying jobs. Most jobs at Lloyd Industries pay between $9 an hour and $17 an hour, he says.
Crow believes that society looks down on the manufacturing sector.
Most people think if their child goes into manufacturing, its a failure, he says. Weve become a nation of paper pushers because it looks more glamorous.
MacKay believes the education system needs to focus on vocational programs instead of just on getting people ready for college.
No question that there far fewer vocation training programs than ever before at the high school level, MacKay says. Its dicey at the community college level, too.
MacKay says that MacKay Manufacturing looks for people who want to make manufacturing a career and are willing to work their way up the ladder. He says many high school graduates MacKay hires start out sweeping the floor and are encouraged by the company to take community college courses to advance.
When were hiring somebody out of high school, we dont expect them to have the skills we need, MacKay says. We want positive attitudes from people who want to learn.
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