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Skilled workers tough to find for manufacturing positions
Welders, machinists most desired positions
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Welder David Gearin welds an eye-bolt base to a 400-horsepower, custom-made electric motor last week at Baldor Electric Co.’s Flowery Branch plant. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Positions in manufacturing are consistent as the market grows, but employer demands seem to be outpacing employee skills.

“Georgia is a great place to be a manufacturing company,” said Ira Bennett, director of marketing for Harris Products Group, which provides parts used in brazing, soldering, welding, cutting and gas distribution industries.

She said between tax incentives and the lack of unions, large companies have been attracted to the South, including Georgia, for a number of years.

“You have access to the largest airport in the world,” she said. “You have great roads. You have great transportation. You have a lower labor cost, and a much lower cost of living. ... It’s a great place to locate a company.”

Companies mean jobs, and there are plenty in manufacturing. Unemployment numbers are trending in the right direction. In a news release by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Dec. 6, data showed a decline in the unemployment rate in November from 7.3 percent to 7 percent. 

The report states “employment increased in transportation and warehousing, health care and manufacturing.”

In November, 27,000 jobs were added to the manufacturing sector, with the major gains being made in food manufacturing and in motor vehicles and parts.

Statistics from the National Association of Manufacturers say nearly 12 million Americans are employed directly in manufacturing, with the average employee earning $77,060 annually in 2011.

Locally, there are three types of positions in particular that employers are looking to fill.

“I have talked with many manufacturers in the last year and the skill sets that seem to be currently in demand would be welders, (computer numeric controlled) machinists and industrial maintenance technicians,” said Tim McDonald, Lanier Technical College’s vice president of economic development. 

Some employers, though, are saying the needs for those positions are not being met.

Kelly Travers is the branch manager of ResourceMFG in Flowery Branch. ResourceMFG pairs skilled employees with these kinds of jobs. She said as the nature of manufacturing becomes more robotic and high tech, the desired basic skill level will only continue to increase.

“There is definitely a shortage of individuals that are qualified,” Travers said. “The people that possess the skills that are in desire ... are typically currently employed. So that makes it more challenging.”

The younger generation may train in a technical college or high school, but those workers are still not quite what employers need.

Jim Edwards, co-owner of Processing Equipment Solutions, said it’s very difficult to find someone who can not only do the job but do it quickly.

“The employees that come out of school know how to manufacture a part, but they don’t know the most efficient way,” he said.

Processing Equipment Solutions produces high-pressure water-jet-cutting equipment for the poultry industry.

“You can make it as slow or as fast as you know how to do it. I think in school they teach how to do it and not how to do it fast, and (how to use) the right tooling to make it faster.”

He added even if an employee comes to the company straight from a technical school or high school vocational program, the company still has to do a lot of on-the-job training.

McDonald said Lanier Tech is “always looking at strategies” to bridge the gap between the needs and desires of employees and the skills and talent of an emerging workforce.

Next year, the college wants to bring in local manufacturers as an advisory committee to look at what they need “on a broader level.”

McDonald added there is an apprenticeship program in heating, ventilation and air conditioning; the school is considering adding further apprenticeships.

It may also be a sign of the times that the labor pool doesn’t have the exposure to mechanical-type activities that previous generations did.

“A lot of older employees that we had were always people that worked on cars, or they were the guys who grew up with their dad working on cars,” said Mike Holman, plant manager at Baldor Electric, which produces industrial-level electric motors. “So they had good mechanical aptitude. Now no one works on their cars. The dads don’t work on their cars (in front of) their kids, because people just can’t do that. That’s kind of a skill set that we see is missing now: People with just good mechanical aptitude.”

Employers lamented many high school students and young adults don’t consider a career in manufacturing.

According to Bennett, there’s a national shortage in these kinds of careers, particularly in welding.

“There was a time in our country when you went to high school and there was vocational education,” she said. “You could learn how to weld. You could learn how to become a mechanic. But then we started encouraging our kids (saying) everybody needed to go to college and get a college education. The whole idea of a technical education almost became like, ‘Why would you want to do that? Why would you want to have a blue-collar job when you could have a white-collar job?’”

Travers agreed, saying many are realizing these jobs can pay off big time, even for entry-level positions. Certified welders and machinists can earn up to $25 per hour; maintenance technicians can get close to $30 per hour.

“(Students) might be looking at a more traditional college education whether it’s specializing in business administration or accounting,” Travers said. “They’re not really looking at technical skills.”