By ALICE CULP South Bend Tribune

August 12, 2012

Indiana's rate of job growth is above the national average, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

And manufacturing is at the forefront of this growth, with nearly half the private sector jobs Indiana has added since July 2009 coming from manufacturing. Jobs are increasing in health care, too, as the population ages and more retirement communities and community health agencies crop up.

But while there are positions open, some companies are struggling to fill them and the problem lies not in the lack of bodies, but in the lack of skilled workers.

According to Indiana Career Connect and the Michigan Works Job Matching System, some of the top job openings in Michiana are for machine operators, production workers, welders, trucker drivers and health care workers.

But while there are plenty of jobs in manufacturing and health care, those two fields also accounted for nearly 48 percent of the unemployment claims in St. Joseph, Elkhart, Marshall, Fulton and Kosciusko counties in the most recent reporting period.

So, why is it difficult to fill jobs and why aren't workers returning to work?


Manufacturing skills

Manufacturers need workers with basic math skills, who can problem-solve and run measurements.

But the technical skills gap is especially noticeable in the field of computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine operators. These workers formerly only ran the machines, which drill, cut and shape highly precise items, but now they are expected to program those machines.

Hiring in manufacturing is much more difficult now than it was in the past, said Bill Mach, president of Mach Mold, a Benton Harbor company that builds molds and tooling for the plastics industry.

"Many people left this line of work during the economic downturn, because some of the jobs went away for a while," he said, explaining that people believed manufacturing was dead in the United States.

"But it's not dead; it's just evolving," he said. "The economic situation has improved and now our challenge is to find and/or train people. There are more of us competing for this limited pool of talent."

The pool of talent is limited for several reasons -- lack of interest among job seekers and lack of qualified workers, he said.

"There has never been a huge excess of people in this line of work, but the shift was faster in the economy than it was in the training," he said. "Employers were looking at ways to cut costs and one of the ways was we did less training and we're paying for it now."


Manufacturing also has an image problem.

"People no longer envision their kids growing up and working in manufacturing," Rea said. "I think some of them have the image of the Dodge Foundry, where you come home covered head-to-toe in stuff, but it's not like that anymore."

Today, high school students are encouraged to go to college, not to take blue-collar jobs, Rea said. But they can make a good living in manufacturing. In fact, last year, one local employer who needed several maintenance technicians offered a salary of $125,000.

"It's a skill that not many people can do," Rea said.

There tend to be fewer of the high-paying jobs and more of the low-paying jobs, though, said Rea, adding that some unemployed workers might be waiting for wages to break a certain level -- say $12 -- before it's worthwhile to return to work.

Still, some laborers, such as CNC operators, can make between $18 and $20 per hour locally.


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