News Column

Are NC Jobs Waiting for Right Workers?

Feb 25, 2013

Travis Fain, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

Gov. Pat McCrory -- and gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory before him -- said repeatedly that there are empty jobs across the state sitting open for a lack of trained workers.

It's the linchpin of his pitch to overhaul high school education in this state. The state started down that path this month when McCrory signed legislation to expand vocational training in high schools and add career or college-ready designations to diplomas.

But is it true?

Are there really tons of open manufacturing jobs -- with 9 percent-plus unemployment in the state for nearly four years?

Could there be 8,000 to 9,000 open technical jobs -- from carpentry to bioengineering? Sen. Jerry Till-man said so last week, just before McCrory signed his legislation.

Possibly. Maybe. Maybe even probably. "I think there are many more than that," said Rick Powell, president of PEMMCO Manufacturing, which makes large machine parts at its factory in Randolph County.

The cause is not just normal turnover or low wages, Powell said.

On a staff of 50 people, Powell has five openings paying $18-$23 an hour. That's despite a successful training program just up the road at Randolph Community College, an online ad at and word out to three employment agencies.

"There is definitely a skills shortage for that type of qualified machinist," Powell said. "I would say probably 75 percent of our employees have come through RCC. They've got an excellent program. We just need more."

The problem is a philosophical one, Powell and others said. High schools aren't sending students to vocational programs in high enough numbers. Parents don't dream of their children growing up to be machinists.

They don't realize, manufacturing executives said, that the dirty factories of years ago are gone, thanks to advanced air filtration systems. Computers and lathes today cut with accuracies measured by less than a hair's width.

"Many of the parents, they want manufacturing in their backyard, but they don't want their kids to work in manufacturing," said Jim King, president and chief operating officer of Okuma in Charlotte.

"He can have a job for life and be very well taken care of and make close to six figures."

King said he has seen some national statistics on the skills gap, but he doesn't need statistics to know the problem exists.

"I have got openings that I've been needing to fill for two years," he said.

But surely McCrory, in calling for a major shift in state education policy, had hard data to point to, right?

After repeated requests, one dating to before his landslide election, the governor's press staff produced a 2007 state study that predicted a "talent shortage" in the state through 2017.

It predicts an annual shortage of 5,133 "production, installation, maintenance and repair" workers.

The study didn't account for migration or for private school graduates or for on-the-job training. It predicts a far larger shortage -- more than 10,000 jobs -- for high-end "management, business, financial and administrative" jobs.

Later versions of this report predict much the same thing.

"Production occupations" rank 9th on the N.C. Department of Commerce's list of projected annual job vacancies -- below secretarial work, sales, food preparation, retail, education and "transportation material moving occupations."

However, if "production occupations" are combined with construction trades, engineering and nursing -- some of the other fields McCrory has focused on -- it would move up to No. 1.

So the answer to the question, "Are there lots of empty jobs across the state sitting open for lack of trained workers?"

Looks like it. Certainly there is data to back Mc-Crory's plans, even if McCrory alludes only to anecdotal evidence when he pitches it.

Source: (c)2013 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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