U.S. manufacturers struggle to attract skilled workers

Candidates lacking math, science, computer skills

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — United States manufacturers are failing to fill thousands of vacant jobs despite the fact 14 million people are searching for work across the country.

Technology giant Siemens has more than 3,000 jobs open all over the country. More than one-half require science, technology, engineering and math-related skills.

Other companies report job vacancies that range from six to 200, with some positions open for at least nine months.

Manufacturing is hurt by a dearth of skilled workers.

"What we have been saying for quite a while is that even though there is a high unemployment rate, it's very difficult to find skilled people," said Jeff Owens, president of ATS, a manufacturing consulting services company.

A survey by ManpowerGroup found that a record 52 per cent of U.S. employers have difficulty filling critical positions within their organizations — up from 14 per cent in 2010.

Owens said his company, which counts manufacturing behemoths Caterpillar and Motorola among its clients, has at any given time about 200 open positions .

"We are pro-actively working to fill them. It can take 90 to 100 days, probably, to fill them," he said. "We are creating jobs. We just don't necessarily have the right people to fill them."

On average, companies usually take seven weeks to fill job openings.

Mismatch of skills and jobs

Most of the jobs hard to fill are for skilled trades, Internet technology, engineers, sales representatives and machine operators.

Yet American colleges are producing fewer math and science graduates as students favour social sciences, whose workload is perceived to be manageable, leading to a skills mismatch.

Math, engineering, technology and computer science students accounted for about 11.1 per cent of college graduates in 1980, according to government data. That share dropped to about 8.9 per cent in 2009.

An aging population of skilled workers is adding to the problem. As the baby boomers retire, there are fewer skilled workers available to replace them.

"Many of the younger kids that are coming out of college have been discouraged to go into manufacturing," said Dennis Bray, president and CEO of Contour Precision Group. "A lot of the college graduates have chosen a curriculum and degree that does not give them the necessary science and math skills to be of immediate benefit to companies such as ours."

Contour Precision, based in Clover, S.C., does contract work for the energy and aerospace industries. It is currently looking for six technicians. It has had positions open since last year.

Unemployment in manufacturing is at 8.4 per cent, below the overall rate of 9.1 per cent. According to the U.S. Labor Department's latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, there were 240,000 open jobs in manufacturing in August up 38.7 per cent from one year ago.

The problem is sufficiently serious that businesses are pushing Congress to address the issue of visas and help them hire more high-skilled foreigners.

In hopes of addressing the skills gap, companies such as Siemens and ATS are turning to the military, targeting veterans. Siemens is embarking on apprenticeship programs, while ATS is running training programs for young people.

Latest stories