The U.S. unemployment rate remains above 8 percent, and every politician extols the importance of job creation. Yet each month thousands of manufacturing jobs are there for the taking -- but companies are unable to hire sufficiently skilled workers.
"Five percent of manufacturing jobs go unfilled every day because we can't find the skilled workforce," fretted Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.
At any given time, this skills gap represents about 600,000 open jobs. That's a stark number given how much attention is focused on the high unemployment rate of 8.1 percent and weak monthly job numbers.
The vacant jobs involve skilled production positions such as machinists, production operators and technicians. Employers complain that they can't find workers with the skills to calibrate machinery, do simple math and even more troubling, simply show up to work.
In an attempt to whittle down this number of unfilled posts, manufacturers in 2010 began pushing creation of a portable skills certificate, one that'd be recognized nationwide. A worker trained in northern California could land an aerospace manufacturing job in Missouri, an industrial job in Illinois or work in a factory in the Carolinas.
The trade association, through its public-service group, the Manufacturing Institute, set a goal of 500,000 such certificates by 2016.
The effort is an offshoot of the National Career Readiness Certificate created in 2006 by the workforce development non-profit group ACT to ensure sufficient math, reading and critical-thinking skills for future employees.
"Our (employee) retention has improved," Martha Webb-Jones, senior manager-employment at Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kan., said of the career-readiness certificate. Her company is upbeat on the new portable skills certificate for similar reasons.
"We're trying to build what we call a stable workforce in what is a cyclical industry," said Webb-Jones.
Sandra Westlund-Deenihan also supports the effort. She's president of Quality Float Works Inc., in Schaumburg, Ill. Her company makes float-valve assemblies that look similar to those used in toilet tanks, but they're bigger and are used by the energy sector, cattle ranchers, industry and in sundry other commercial uses.
"This issue really became important to me ... several years ago when I noticed how the skills levels for students (had) dropped," she said, lamenting that so few job applicants can pass a sixth-grade math exam and fewer are trained in calibration. "I've seen the workforce change dramatically. There are fewer workers available with the skills required."
Quality Float Works employs 26, but efforts to add an additional three skilled workers have proved difficult. That's despite the fact that the company pays as much as $80,000 annually.
"It's very difficult for us to find people with the proper work skills," said Westlund-Deenihan.
In 2011, the Manufacturing Institute's Manufacturing Skills Certification System yielded almost 85,000 of the portable certificates that the group hopes to have recognized nationwide. That's almost one-fifth of the goal.
The system provides what are actually known as "stackable" secondary education and post-secondary skills that employers have identified as necessary in order to get a job in manufacturing and advance up the career ladder. The "stackable" skills certificates cover everything from welding and applied math to demonstrable understanding of metalworking, packaging, construction, electronics and die casting.
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