In a three-year period that witnessed thousands of area residents suffer through unemployment, barely a week passed that J&S Tool didn't advertise its intent to hire a qualified, full-time employee.
"If I didn't read the papers, I wouldn't know there was a recession," said Shane Hammond, the president of the family-owned St. Peters manufacturer of grinding tools. "I'd laugh in your face if you told me millions of people are unemployed. I could call eight of our customers and they'd tell you the same thing."
As the 7.8 percent national unemployment rate demonstrates, cautious hiring managers in most economic sectors continue to restrain the efforts of 12.1 million Americans to get back to work.
Not so in manufacturing, a province with literally thousands of jobs going unfilled.
In fact, 82 percent of the respondents to a recent Manufacturing Institute survey indicated they would likely add payroll were it not for the dearth of qualified candidates in the pipeline for skilled production jobs. Eighty percent of respondents expected the pipeline will remain dry into the foreseeable future.
The shortage of replacements for millions of jobs soon to be vacated by baby boomers retiring from skilled trades poses a greater threat to U.S. manufacturing than foreign production or the prolonged recovery from the recession, according to executives, educators and industry advocates.
"If I was a company, I'd be scared to death about the future, especially if I depended on labor and technology," said Stan Shoun, the president of Ranken Technical College.
Ranken, with 2,100 students, has seen enrollment jump by 30 percent over the past three years. It is nonetheless operating 400 students short of capacity on its North St. Louis campus.
The school currently places 98 percent of its graduates in full-time jobs.
And local manufacturers, while also snapping up vocational grads from Southwestern Illinois College, St. Louis Community College and other local institutions are clamoring for more.
Shoun and other industry officials pin the shortage of capable skilled workers on the good intentions of the Greatest Generation who, in the interest of wanting a better life for their children, steered baby boomers away from careers that required punching a factory time clock.
Their children, the baby boomers, consequently earned undergraduate and graduate degrees, moved into white collar jobs and raised their own children with the full expectation that they would attend college as well.
The continuum ignored a basic tenet. "Not everyone is college material," said Hammond, who himself left higher education after six months to join the company founded by his father in 1986.
In the K-12 system, baby boomer parents had a willing ally in emphasizing college over trades.
Shop class, once mandatory, is now an option at most middle and high schools -- if it's offered at all because of budget constraints.
"Most kids are not being pulled into the skills trades," said John Haake, the president of Titanova, a St. Charles laser manufacturer. "There's a huge disconnect with the education system."
Dig a little deeper, and manufacturers also cite pop culture for dampening enthusiasm for careers in manufacturing.
Piqued by the prospect of assembling a motorcycle by reality television series such as "Orange County Choppers," young audiences nonetheless demonstrate little interest in participating in the production of the internal components that allow the customized bikes to roar down the highway.
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