Factory Shift: Manufacturers Struggle to Fill Highly Paid Jobs

Times Staff Writer

Daniel McGee’s parents were apprehensive when their son turned his back on the four-year college degree they always assumed he would earn. They figured a bachelor’s degree was the key to success in the modern economy, and their son was on track to earn one, with athletic honors, a 3.0 grade point average at his Minnesota high school and scholarships in hand.

But as McGee saw it, his future lay in the old-world industry of metalworking. And to succeed, he would have to do something that would shock many parents: turn down the scholarships and study machine-tool technology at a two-year technical college.

McGee, 21, realized what many American workers are missing: Manufacturing, long known for plant closings and layoffs, is now clamoring for workers to fill high-paying, skilled jobs. While millions of manufacturing jobs have been outsourced or automated out of existence during the past decade, many of the remaining jobs require higher skills and pay well -- $50,000 to $80,000 a year for workers with the necessary math, computer and mechanical abilities.

Some manufacturers are so desperate for workers who can program, run or repair the computers and robots that now dominate the factory floor that they are offering recruitment bonuses, relocation packages and other incentives more common to white-collar jobs.


In Ohio, American Micro Products Inc., an electrical parts maker, is offering $1,000 bonuses to workers who recruit technicians, and it is covering moving costs for the new employees. In San Antonio, Toyota cannot find enough qualified applicants for skilled positions at its new plant, even after the state sponsored a training program. In Fontana, California Steel Industries Inc. found it so hard to fill five mechanical and technical positions, some paying $28 an hour, that managers started paying employees to train for the unfilled jobs.

About 90% of manufacturers say they are having trouble filling skilled jobs such as machinists and technicians, according to a survey released in December by the National Assn. of Manufacturers, the leading industry group representing 12,000 manufacturers.

Of those manufacturers, 83% said the shortage of skilled workers affected their ability to serve customers. The shortfall has caught the attention of President Bush, who last week visited a metal parts maker in Green Bay, Wis., and noted that the company was unable to fill its orders because it couldn’t find enough workers.

One of the biggest barriers to hiring young workers like McGee is manufacturing’s reputation as dirty, low-paid and monotonous work. But McGee said he likes mechanical work -- he had worked at a bicycle shop during high school and in his father’s garage workshop -- and was bored by the thought of liberal arts classes without real-world applications.

Now, after graduating from a private, Minneapolis-area high school, he is working as a paid apprentice at a local metal parts manufacturing firm, which also helped pay for his two-year technical training program at a community college.

“I find more value in on-the-job experience along with technical education experience” than in a four-year degree, McGee said. “I see a lot of people coming out of school with just the book knowledge and finding it hard to find a job.”

At first, McGee’s decision was tough for his parents to accept. Although Mike McGee, 49, is an academic dean at the community college his son attends, he still had visions of manufacturing work that involved “a blue-collar, tattoo on the arm, drink beer after the shift -- not the kind of career for my son.”

What changed his mind was seeing his son hired by E.J. Ajax & Sons Inc., which makes metal brackets, latches and other parts, some of which go into household appliances and industrial machinery. In addition to tuition and a $14-an-hour apprenticeship, the company is providing McGee with health insurance, a 401(k) and, once his training is complete, a salary of $58,240 a year.

That’s more than his college-educated brother earns at an advertising job that took him two years to find.

“There are good jobs, and good benefits attached to them,” Mike McGee said of skilled manufacturing workers. “It isn’t the monotonous stand-at-the-line work.”

The average industrial technician earned $54,643 last year, according to California’s Employment Development Department. By comparison, median earnings for all full-time U.S. workers last year were under $34,000. Yet surveys show American youth see manufacturing as a low-paying career track they would rather avoid.

In Contra Costa County -- home to a Dow Chemical plant that pays skilled workers up to $100,000, including overtime and bonuses -- community college students think skilled manufacturing jobs pay less than $55,000, according to a county development board survey this year. Some 75% said they had not considered applying for a manufacturing job.

In addition to their image problem, manufacturers are having trouble finding skilled workers because older workers with the proper training are retiring in large numbers. And many assembly workers who were laid off in recent years are unwilling to return to manufacturing or unable to upgrade their math skills, said Mary Rose Hennessy, executive director of the Coalition for Manufacturers at Northern Illinois University.

Some companies say they are willing to pay to retrain workers, but that the community college programs they once relied on have been eliminated. Many of the 1,202 member colleges of the American Assn. of Community Colleges closed programs in recent years due to flagging student demand, said Norma Kent, vice president of communications.

Now, businesses are clamoring for new, updated programs that require costly training equipment, she said. Manufacturing is vulnerable to economic downturns, and colleges are wary that they will invest in expensive programs only to see jobs dry up.

When Toyota announced plans to open a new plant with 2,000 jobs in San Antonio, it received 100,000 applications from people eager to work. But for the 200 technician positions that required higher skills, the automaker had trouble finding applicants, said Daniel Sieger, spokesman for Toyota’s North American manufacturing headquarters.

The state of Texas paid teacher Frank Quijano to train as many as 50 people at a time at a local community college for the skilled Toyota jobs, but only 20 signed up. When Quijano asked people at a job fair why they did not apply for the jobs, which will pay between $40,000 and $50,000, “they would all say it’s low-paying, dangerous and dirty,” he said.

Eventually, Toyota hired about 120 skilled workers, mostly by recruiting them from other manufacturers, Quijano said. That helped Toyota, Quijano said, but it also shifted the problem of finding skilled workers onto the companies whose employees had been lured away.

Sieger said Toyota expected to hire “a small percentage” of workers from other states so it could start production at the plant in November.

Quijano said that his classes are now full, as word has spread about the good pay for skilled jobs at Toyota. He said the company still needs 20 to 30 skilled workers, and may need more as business grows.

Shortages are forcing many manufacturers to recruit across state lines. Dow Chemical Co. is recruiting in Texas, Louisiana and Michigan to fill technician jobs for its plant in Pittsburg, Calif.

Such recruiting is riskier, since job candidates often balk at California’s higher cost of living, suffer bouts of homesickness and later leave, said Alan Ichikawa, who is involved with recruiting at the plant.

Ichikawa is trying to fill 10 skilled jobs and expects to hire 80 to 90 more workers, mostly high-skilled, in the next five years. He hopes to hire some of the 25 students enrolled in a new, five-month, state-funded manufacturing program at nearby Los Medanos College.

During the past five years, Daniel McGee’s employer, E.J. Ajax & Sons, has paid for training for all 50 of its workers, owner Erick Ajax said. But Ajax expects half the workforce to retire in the next 15 years and is having trouble finding replacements.

That is why Ajax wants to hold on to McGee. Ajax recently offered the young apprentice an additional incentive: If McGee enrolls in the manufacturing technology program to earn a bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota, Ajax will pay his tuition.

This time, McGee says, he plans to accept the scholarship and earn the four-year degree he initially spurned.

“I plan on doing basically what my parents have done -- have a house, cars, the American dream, I suppose,” he said the other day while taking a break from working on the plant computers.

“I think it’s actually going to happen quicker the way I’m doing it than most of the people my age, because I have on-the-job experience. Most people my age have another year of school, and then they’re starting at the bottom.”