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Shortage of skilled manufacturing workers up for debate

By Lauren Gibbons
Capital News Service

LANSING — Despite growing concern over a skilled labor shortage in Michigan’s manufacturing industry, a Kalamazoo-based research company suggests employment data doesn’t support the hyped fears.

Many manufacturers in the state have expressed difficulties in finding skilled laborers to fit their needs and claim there is a talent shortage, especially in middle-skill positions such as engineers, welders, machinists and technicians.

Groups such as the Michigan Manufacturers Association are prioritizing initiatives with manufacturers, community colleges and career service agencies to address the shortage, association director of human resource policy Delaney McKinley said.

But according to George Erickeck, a senior regional analyst at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, that perception isn’t necessarily in line with publicly available workforce data.

In an attempt to pinpoint the root of Michigan’s supposed skilled labor shortage, the institute used U.S. Census data to compile information about employment statistics for machinists in seven Midwest states, Erickeck said.

Generally if a true shortage exists, wages will increase as businesses fight to compete for the available personnel, he said. However, research showed the average wages of machinists on all skill levels declined slightly.

Other indicators of a shortage, such as a large portion of the population retiring, a mass migration or a large number of people leaving the workforce entirely, were also absent.

“The story that is happening does not fit the data,” Erickeck said. “I have a feeling employers are being more careful about who they’re hiring. There are still more job seekers than there are jobs.”

McKinley disputed Erickeck’s findings and said the shortage of skilled labor is a real problem facing manufacturers throughout the state.

“I don’t think what we see on the ground and in the field matches what researchers might be finding in the books,” she said. “The talent crisis the industry is facing is many manufacturers’ top concern.”

In West Michigan, many manufacturing companies are redoubling efforts to fill the gap they’re finding between the talent pool and the jobs that need filling, said Jay Dunwell, president of Grand Rapids-based Wolverine Coil Spring Co.

“I guess in general the availability of workers with skills and talents ready for the floor with little training has been gone for a long time now,” he said. “It’s even more challenging now to find even individuals with the general background.”

Throughout the region, manufacturers are attempting to appeal to high school graduates coming into the workforce, as well as to displaced manufacturing workers. With training programs, information sessions, career workshops and even promotional contests to get the message across, Dunwell said Wolverine Coil Spring and other companies hope the gap between job openings and prospective employees can be managed.

“We need to get the message out that there are great career opportunities in manufacturing,” he said.

In the future, Erickeck said a major shortage of workers interested in manufacturing positions is not out of the question as the generation of baby boomers retires. Interest in industry could take a hit among younger members of the workforce as well, he said.

“I think that’s going to be one of the tough sells,” he said. “It’s going to become difficult to make manufacturing seem better than a computer tech job.”

 

 

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