Published in the Pacific Coast Business Times, October 4, 2013
Many of the region’s largest manufacturers say they face a shortage of skilled factory workers. That’s despite high unemployment rates and a steady decline in tri-county manufacturing jobs in recent years.
Industry experts say the shortage stems from a number of factors, including a dearth of young people interested in manufacturing careers. Few students are pursuing technical educations, often because of a dated view that factory work means unskilled, mindless tasks.
The Ventura County Workforce Investment Board’s Manufacturing Roundtable aims to bridge the expertise gap with an outreach program designed to expose high school students to modern, highly skilled manufacturing careers.
The Workforce Investment Board will bus students from various high schools to the Ventura County plants of Haas Automation, Applied Powdercoat, Alcoa Fastening Systems and AG Machining. Cheryl Moore, director of the WIB, said organizers are hoping that by highlighting the range of technical applications in the manufacturning sector, they can pique student interest and expose them to opportunities they may not have been aware existed.
“What we have found is that students who are able to see real world applications of what they are doing in school tend to develop an interest,” Moore said.
Ventura County’s manufacturing industry has shed 600 net jobs over the past 12 months, according to a report last month by the Santa Barbara-based California Economic Forecast, a private forecasting firm. That represents a 2 percent decline, the forecast said, and marks a return to 1980s levels of manufacturing employment in Ventura County. The forecast predicts that while the county’s manufacturing will rebound in coming years, “growth will be tepid.”
The manufacturing sector “will remain in a ‘stair step’ pattern,” the forecast said, “in which growth falls dramatically during recessions, and then recovers only modestly during expansions.” The high wages garnered by workers in the region puts employers at a comparative disadvantage to firms in low-cost areas, the report said.
21st century jobs
California Economic Forecast Director Mark Schniepp told the Business Times that manufacturing jobs are oftentimes specific to a particular plant and it’s therefore difficult to find applicable general instruction. He said the more pressing need for skilled labor is in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields such as software and computer engineering.
Schniepp said solving the underlying problem would require a complete shift in the types of careers students pursue, with more going in to seek education geared at entering technical fields. Addressing the shortage in skilled manufacturing labor is only a small part of a much larger issue, he said.
“This is just a drop in the bucket,” Schniepp said. “We need wholesale changes in the way people look at jobs in the 21st century.”
His forecast predicts that with the manufacturing sector no longer shedding workers, a total of 7,500 net new jobs will be created in Ventura County in 2014. But, he noted, many companies looking to hire are struggling to find skilled workers to fill open positions.
Thousand Oaks metal shop teacher Abel Magana said it is hard to gauge how interested students are in manufacturing jobs because many young people are unaware of what modern factory work actually entails.
While increased reliance on robotics and automation has cut down on the overall need for human labor in manufacturing processes, Magana said new technology also creates a demand for bright, tech-savvy workers who can oversee complex factory-floor operations and run computerized equipment. Modern manufacturing, in other words, is more about knowing how to operate high-tech machinery than mindless drilling hundreds of holes in sheets of metal all day long.
“There are lots of skills that are part of manufacturing that just don’t naturally occur to you. … There is less demand now for, say, a craftsman and more demand for someone with a STEM education,” said Bill Watkins, director of the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
Manufacturing Day targets students not planning to attend four-year colleges or universities who might otherwise go straight into lower paying entry-level positions such as retail or food service. Magana, the teacher, said a general high school education lacks much of the real world application that students need to enter the manufacturing industry. Students interested in entering the field can benefit from attending at least a year of a community college or technical program, he said.
Bryan Garcia, a vice president at Moorpark-based metal manufacturing firm AG Machining, said the firm is combating the skilled worker shortage by training employees on-site. The company, which has more than 100 employees, also offers free vocational training and community college tuition. Still, Garcia said, events such as Manufacturing Day are vital to maintaining interest in skilled factory jobs among younger generations.
Tony Guy, vice president and general manager of Santa Maria-based aviation interiors firm C&D Zodiac, said the company also relies mostly on site-specific training, but said its hiring process would be more efficient if applicants already had some of the necessary computer skills when they walked in the door. To address this, the firm is investing in community college programs with manufacturing emphases. C&D Zodiac last year embarked on a hiring spree and now has 1,250 workers in Santa Maria, making it north Santa Barbara County’s largest private-sector employer.
Decreased labor demand due to new technology is also compounded by the fact that manufacturers are transplanting operations out-of-state and overseas to escape regulatory barriers, taxes and steep living wages. Oxnard-based machine-tool maker Haas Automation, for example, has said it is considering building its next plant outside of regulation-heavy California. The company is the nation’s largest machine-tool builder and has 1,000 workers at its Oxnard plant.
Watkins said the outsourcing problem tends to be particularly pronounced in coastal communities, where land prices are higher and residents are more vocal about environmental impact. He said this provides additional incentive for workers to pursue technical training, since jobs requiring low-skill workers are much more likely to be relocated out of the region.