Changing Gears: new Jobs Demanding new Skills

In 2008, Dan Spohn was laid off from his West Michigan manufacturing job. It took him six months of effort: going online every day, knocking on doors, passing out resumes, before he found new work.

Spohn: I mean, trying to even land an interview was almost non existent. I think people were in a mode of wait and see, they didn’t want to pull the trigger.

Spohn works in quality control. He’s had 22 years of experience, including management. He ended up leaving the automotive sector and moving into medical parts manufacturing. Two months ago, that company downsized, and he was out of work again. But this time,

Spohn: A week later I had two job interviews, two job offers, and within two weeks of that I was starting a new job.

Crampton (phone): It seems like everybody we talk to, they are starving for skilled workers, they need people with good skills.

Tom Crampton is an executive dean at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. He focuses on manufacturing training - and Crampton says while manufacturers are hiring, expectations have changed.

It’s not just about walking in the door and applying for a job. Crampton says employers are looking for people with good problem solving and very specific technical skills.

Crampton: We’ve seen spikes in the machining area, the welding area, the design area and also a term that’s been used - mecha-tronics – multiskilled individuals, people who can work with both mechanical and electrical components.

State and federal governments devote millions of dollars to helping unemployed workers get retrained – in Michigan, for example, the overall retraining budget is about $640 million this year.

Some of that goes to paying tuition at local community colleges. Across the Midwest, colleges say they are seeing vocational course fill up as the hiring need deepens.

They’re grinding and cutting, grinding to prepare to prepare the edges of the metal for the weld..

Welding instructor Leo Suhre is explaining to me what he teaches at Richland Community College in Decatur, Illinois.

Last year, Richland only had enough shop space for 12 students in each of welding class. So when classes starting filling up, the college began offering an additional section at midnight. Douglas Brauer is a vice-president at Richland.

Brauer: We go from midnight to 4 a.m. We ran that first the spring, and it started filling up, we ran it again in the summer, there’s a demand there, I don’t think I’m going to be there at midnight welding.

But the students certainly are. Enrollment for this course has increased 20 percent, and the midnight classes are now a regular fixture. Brauer says they’re especially popular with workers coming off second and third shifts at Caterpillar, one of Decatur’s largest employers. So much so the college is thinking about offering not just welding certification, but degree completion courses at midnight.

Nationally, the jobless rate within manufacturing has dropped from a high of 13 percent in January 2010 to just under 8 percent. One of the greatest needs is for machinists – specially, computerized numerical control – or CNC - operators.

(Drill sound, instructor saying, Ok, so we’re putting tool number two in, go ahead please..)

Symbol Job Training is a for-profit school in Skokie, just north of Chicago. The school focuses on training machinists in CNC – those machines are the standard on factory floors these days.

In this class, students are learning CNC programming. John Zawojski (Za-VOY-ski), says he hopes this will help get him out of his current warehousing job.

Zawojski: I was making pretty good money in my last job, got laid off, I haven’t been able to find that kind of pay anywhere else so I got into the machining actually - I got into it through the unemployment.

Zawojski hadn’t heard of machining until the employment office told him it could be a good career – and said it would pay his tuition.

Back in Flint, Crampton, from Mott Community College, says the conventional wisdom is that there aren’t any manufacturing jobs. But

Crampton: We really are facing what employers are calling pipeline issues.

The question is not just meeting today’s demand, but tomorrow’s, too.

For Changing Gears, I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Changing Gears is a public media collaboration between Michigan Radio, WBEZ and Ideastream in Cleveland. Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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