July/August 2010

Factory employers find skills shortage

Factory owners have been adding jobs slowly but steadily since the beginning of the year, giving a lift to the fragile economic recovery. And because they laid off so many workers-more than 2 million since the end of 2007-manufacturers now have a vast pool of people to choose from.

Yet some of these employers complain that they cannot fill their openings, reported The New York Times.

Plenty of people are applying for the jobs. The problem, the companies said, is a mismatch between the kind of skilled workers needed and the ranks of the unemployed.

During the recession, domestic manufacturers appear to have accelerated the long-term move toward greater automation, laying off more of their lowest-skilled workers and replacing them with cheaper labor abroad. Now they are looking to hire people who can operate sophisticated computerized machinery, follow complex blueprints, and demonstrate higher math proficiency than was previously required of the typical assembly line worker.

Makers of innovative products like advanced medical devices and wind turbines are among those growing quickly and looking to hire, and they too need higher skills.

The increasing emphasis on more advanced skills raises policy questions about how to help low-skilled job seekers who are being turned away at the factory door and increasingly becoming the long-term unemployed. In June, the Senate reconsidered but declined to extend unemployment benefits, after earlier extensions raised the maximum to 99 weeks.

The Obama administration has advocated further stimulus measures, which the Senate rejected, and has allocated more money for training. Still, officials say more robust job creation is the real solution.

But a number of manufacturers say that even if demand surges, they will never bring back many of the lower-skilled jobs, and that training is not yet delivering the skilled employees they need.

Manufacturers who profess to being shorthanded say they have retooled the way they make products, calling for higher-skilled employees. "It's not just what is being made," said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "but to the degree that you make it at all, you make it differently."