Manufacturers Struggle to Find Trained Tech People

Charles Murray

March 13, 2015

3 Min Read
Manufacturers Struggle to Find Trained Tech People

America's aging manufacturing base may finally be on the rebound, but it still faces an unexpected dilemma -- lack of trained technical people to carry out the work.

Experts at Manufacturing in America Symposium in Detroit this week said companies can't find enough people for jobs ranging from controls engineers and machine operators to tool makers and robot programmers. "We have a 10.7% year-over-year increase in job openings in the manufacturing sector," said Brian Beaulieu, CEO of ITR Economics during a speech at the Symposium. "But we can't find people."

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The problem is so acute that many OEMs openly recruit trained technical workers from suppliers, in some cases paying penalties for doing so. "We've lost two people to Ford in the past six months," Kerry Hammer, chief operating officer of The Paslin Co., an integrator of manufacturing assembly and automation systems, told Design News. "We had to put a penalty clause in our contracts that says if you hire one of our people, it will cost you an exorbitant amount of money. And they're still willing to pay."

The Paslin Co. has dealt with the problem by paying high hourly wages to workers who have as little as two or three years experience. Robot programmers, for example, can earn $25 to $30 an hour after only three years. Hammer said the company recently lost a 21-year-old robot programmer who was earning more than $100,000 a year with overtime, after a customer recruited him. "It's one of our biggest problems," Hammer told us. "A customer snapped him up."

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The competition has grown in the past five years, as the US auto industry has gone from a 27-year low of 10.4 million vehicles sold in 2009 to 16.4 million in 2014. During that five-year period, half of Paslin's competitors went out of business and some skilled technical people retired or left the industry. "Many of the good tool makers out there are in their mid-to-late 50's now," Hammer said. "So we're leaving a big hole."

Robot programmers are among the top of the list in terms of demand, Hammer added. He said he recruits most from high schools or community colleges, starts them at $15 an hour, and pays them large increases in the first few years. "They pick it up very quickly because of their experience with video games," he said. "That's what a robot is to them."

On the engineering side, the demand is even greater, Hammer said. Degreed controls engineers are stepping into their first jobs earning $28 per hour and rising to $40 per hour within five years. With overtime, he said, engineers in their mid-20's make well over $100,000 per year and receive offers from OEMs and Tier One manufacturers on an almost-daily basis.

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Economists say that the demand for such individuals is strangely exceeding the growth in the economy. In general, Beaulieu said, US employment was up only about 2.4% last year, even as the manufacturing sector saw a 10.7% increase in job openings. The reason for the difference is that many American youths no longer have the skill sets needed to fill such jobs. Moreover, college graduates often shy away from manufacturing.

"We haven't been training people to work in manufacturing," Beaulieu said. "Baby Boomers have spent their lives teaching their kids that they need to go to school to get all sorts of degrees, none of which enable them to use their heads and their hands at the same time. But here's a newsflash: We have enough art history majors in the United States. We don't need any more."

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 31 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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