Despite Unemployment Numbers, Manufacturers Say Its Tough to Find Workers

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Thogus Products in Avon Lake has an enviable problem these days. The 60-year-old family owned plastics company has been growing rapidly over the past year, expanding by more than a third with an additional 30 hires. But the company's HR director, Erin Hlavin, says even post-recession, she has struggled to find qualified candidates.

Erin Hlavin: So we've sort of had to think outside the box and go for folks that are mechanically inclined and really focus on training.

Area companies have been making similar statements for years, but to hear it when the state's unemployment rate is hovering around 8 and a half percent is more than a bit confusing. Recently, Thogus was looking for machine operators to fill 12 openings. After four job fairs, Hlavin has found only ten qualified workers. Hlavin says there's no shortage of resumes, the problem is that it's difficult to find workers that have the skills needed to thrive in companies that have survived a vicious recession.

Erin Hlavin: They've worked with other companies that have sort of a different skill set requirement. Their entry level is just one task at a time

Hlavin says at Thogus, operators have to multitask and that means running as many as six machines at a time. Ned Hill, Dean of CSU's Levin College, says this is a common refrain at companies now. Manufacturers in the Cleveland area added 1,800 jobs over the past year, but Hill says post-recession, these workers must multitask and be certified to operate specialized machines.

Ned Hill: The notion that someone can just walk in and learn a machine in a few hours and be up to speed... if that happens, that's the exact job that's going to be automated and disappear.

More jobs are expected to open up as baby boomers retire. Officials project that nearly 30 percent of Ohio manufacturing workers will be eligible for retirement in the next five years. Ithaca College sociologist Stephen Sweet surveyed hundreds of companies and found a significant number have concerns about losing experienced older workers.

Stephen Sweet: For example, if an employer has an older skilled employee or a department full of skilled employees and then they see that department retire en masse, or for an individual employee to leave with their skill sets and then have difficulty transferring that knowledge to subsequent generations of workers.

Finding new talent has been a long term worry for the managers at Fredon Corp, a 42-year-old manufacturer in Mentor. Alyson Scott and her Dad, Roger Sustar, run the company and say part of the problem is that people are stuck on out-of-date ideas of manufacturing as simple, repetitive work.

Alyson Scott: If you ask somebody to recommend five students who would be good for careers in manufacturing they would probably go right to the typical vo-ed, remedial English students...
Roger Sustar: I like the nerds. Nerds are the greatest.

By nerds, Sustar means the math and science stars who are ready to think creatively to solve problems for customers. In order to find them, Sustar started Saturday morning training sessions in his plant with high school students.

18-year-old Kevin Letinen went through Fredon's high school program last year and is now working for them for the summer. On this day he's programming a device a CNC or Computer Numerical Controlled machine to carve parts for locomotives and high-tech military equipment. The Mentor High grad says his experience here inspired him to go for an engineering degree at Ohio State in the fall and dream big for the future.

Kevin Letinen: With mechanical engineering, I was looking at either possibly starting my own business or I was looking also at bio medical engineering. I'm also thinking working at NASA would be cool, that would be a pretty awesome job. But I really could go anywhere.

And that's exactly the kind of sentiment manufacturing company executives wish they could hear more often.

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