By Alejandra Cancino, Chicago Tribune reporter
PEKIN, Ill. — — Doug Parsons needs to hire more than two dozen skilled workers at his manufacturing plant here, but he can’t find them.
Parsons’ problem was heightened last year when company sales grew 60 percent. To try to keep up, he hired about 30 to 40 machinists but needs more.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that the pool of qualified, trained, experienced workers is not sufficient to meet demand,” said Parsons, president and chief executive of Excel Foundry & Machine, which makes parts for machines used in the mining industry.
Younger workers lack the skills to tap into a job that at Parsons’ plant could pay up to $23 per hour. Part of the problem is that after decades of layoffs and outsourcing, young workers see manufacturing as dead, dying or offering jobs that are too dirty to bother with.
The lack of skilled workers is not new. In Parsons’ case, he created his own training program in 2004 and started reaching out to local high schools and colleges to educate young workers about careers in manufacturing.
Other companies throughout the state are taking a similar tack. They also are partnering with the state and manufacturing associations to improve education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which are key to landing jobs in today’s manufacturing sector.
Nationwide, an estimated 600,000 manufacturing jobs are going unfilled, according to a survey by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute published last year. Manufacturers expect the shortage to worsen in the next three to five years as older workers retire.
“Exacerbating the issue is the stubbornly poor perception of manufacturing jobs among younger workers,” the report says, adding that manufacturing ranks at the bottom of industries in which young workers would chose to start their careers.
Even the White House is trying to change the image of manufacturing. In his State of the Union address in January, President Barack Obama said American manufacturers were key to rebuilding the U.S. economy. “We have a huge opportunity, at this moment, to bring manufacturing back. But we have to seize it.”
In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn is supporting manufacturing by pledging incentives to retain or expand the employee base for such companies as Ford Motor Co., truck- and engine-maker Navistar International Corp. and Excel. Aides said Quinn’s strategy to help the industry includes investments in roads and a push to streamline regulation, such as last year’s overhaul of the workers’ compensation system.
“Here in Illinois, manufacturing is food and ag. It’s farmland and biotech. It’s automotive, transportation and computer electric products. For us, we really view it as one of the largest engines in the state,” said Mark Harris, Quinn’s deputy chief of staff.
The state’s main incentive for manufacturers is the Employer Training Investment Program, or ETIP, which reimburses companies or organizations up to 50 percent of the cost of training employees. In fiscal 2011, the state awarded about $11 million in grants, which helped train workers at about 1,100 companies in manufacturing and service industries, according to the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
“Clearly manufacturers tell us that we need to do a better job in our educational system and we need to do a better of job highlighting the new world of manufacturing so that kids coming up through the educational system see that as a good career path, good opportunities and provide good jobs” said Warren Ribley, the state’s top economic development official.
Manufacturers complain it takes up to 18 months to find skilled machinists, welders, operators and engineers.
“It’s not unusual to hear how manufacturers are interviewing 60 to 100 applicants to find one skilled worker,” said Jim Nelson, vice president of external affairs at the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.
Earlier this month Quinn announced a $3.2 million public-private initiative to increase student enrollment in science, technology, engineering and math programs in high schools and colleges.
Among the schools tapped to help with the initiative is the Richard J. Daley College in Chicago, which offers an associate’s degree in manufacturing. This semester enrollment in the manufacturing classes jumped 23 percent to 54 students.
“The economy is a big part of that and a growing realization that there are good jobs and good careers in manufacturing,” said Ray Prendergast, the director of the college’s Manufacturing Technology Institute.
Consider first-year student Billy McFarland, who at 47 said he decided on a future in manufacturing because he was tired of looking at jobs that didn’t pay more than $12 an hour.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve made a good choice,” said McFarland, who decided to go back to school after his property management business tanked. He had his heart set on engineering, but a reality check of his finances steered him toward the manufacturing degree, which will cost him about $10,000, he said.
“The skill set is higher than most people understand,” McFarland said.
He acknowledged that some family members and friends think he’ll end up in a dingy factory. But he said he knows most factories these days are clean and the type of machinery requires far different skills, including being adept with math, than when his father worked in a steel mill.
At Pekin Community High School’s manufacturing program, senior Trevor Reese said he left his $8.25-an-hour job at Steak ‘n Shake to become a machinist at Excel. He’ll earn $11.50 per hour until he graduates. Then his pay will jump to $13 per hour.
“Fast food is not my thing,” said Reese, 18. “It’s greasy and messy all the time.”
So far this year, five seniors in the same program have landed manufacturing jobs. In addition to Reese, Excel hired one other student. At Excel, students are paid to go through the company’s training after school and are offered a full-time job when they graduate.
Reese said he didn’t know his high school offered manufacturing classes until he learned that fellow students in a welding class had made a dragon out of metal. He signed up for the welding class his sophomore year. Soon, his football teammates were teasing him about the metal roses he learned to make.
“People made fun of me but asked me to make them for them,” Reese said.
Welding led him to other classes, including one on operating computer numerical control (CNC) machines, which Reese said are more in line with engineering, which he plans to pursue.
In the fall, the school is adding a course to teach teenagers how build and fix the computerized machines. The class was started at the request of Excel, which just bought two machines, has two more on the way and plans to buy two more.
The region also needs welders like Aaron Vickers, who has been working part time for a company in Morton. “I know it sounds stupid, but I can make just as much money as someone who goes to college once I’m done with high school,” Vickers said, adding that he could make up to $25 per hour.
Despite success stories and efforts by the high school to promote manufacturing classes, the number of seniors in such classes is down by 50 percent to 20, said manufacturing teacher Troy Deiss. The number fluctuates because the classes are optional, and parents can discourage their children from signing up, he said.
Educators say that for manufacturing programs to succeed, parents also need to change their view of the industry. Many with memories of layoffs would rather see their children forge a future at a four-year university.
Though there is a demand for skilled workers, manufacturing jobs in Illinois have decreased by 4.7 percent since the industry’s peak in 1998, according to a report by Bill Testa and Norman Wang from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
In the Great Lakes region, manufacturing jobs have decreased to 2.7 million in 2010 from 4.2 million in 1998, according to the report. The industry started creating jobs again in mid-2009, “but these gains are very modest in the context of the entire period since 1969.”
When asked if his students worried about layoffs, Deiss said: “Absolutely. They don’t know when the bottom is going to drop off. … If I would get a job in manufacturing I would be scared too, but you can’t live like that. You make the best of it.”
Parsons, Excel’s president and CEO, said layoff fears are unfounded. Manufacturers that have disappeared didn’t make products that justified their existence, he said, and the companies that survived, such as his, will continue to grow and add jobs.
“Manufacturing is leading the recovery,” Parsons said.