When 17-year-old Brian Dardon told his mother he wanted to pursue a career in manufacturing, she was full of apprehension.
But then Brian took an internship at local manufacturer Engis Corporation, where he was asked to brainstorm how to fill customer orders. His mother now sees that an industrial job can offer a “creative outlet for his talents.”
Brian’s school district offers a manufacturing program with companies in the Golden Corridor, a long strip rich in manufacturers that runs through Chicago’s northwestern suburbs. He now plans to go to college to pursue qualifications that will prepare him for a career in manufacturing.
The future of manufacturing in the U.S. will largely be shaped by the strength of the U.S. dollar, energy costs and the outcome of trade deals. But companies face a human challenge too: how to recruit young Americans to replace the millions of Baby Boomers retiring over the next decade.
Nationwide, the number of apprentices fell more than 40 percent from 2007 to 2013, to under 300,000, according to government data. But then it rose around 10 percent in 2014 when, in a rare act of bipartisanship, Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which provides $3 billion a year for training programs.
From January to June of this year, the manufacturing sector averaged 68,000 unfilled jobs per month.
Industry executives also have to overcome the doubts of parents, who have watched manufacturers lay off U.S. workers and ship their jobs overseas for decades.
“Convincing parents that manufacturing is not just a dirty, dying business … is a major challenge we face,” says Dick Gilchrist, chairman of the U.S. division of Felsomat, a German company that makes assembly line machinery for automakers such as General Motors and Ford.
Gilchrist recruits at area high schools and hosts open houses for kids and parents where he extols training programs paid by employers and job guarantees. It beats spending tens of thousands of dollars on a four-year college degree, he says, only to see their child work as a barista.
Overall, the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is still 15 percent below prerecession 2005 levels. But advocates of manufacturing training say there is an impressive growth opportunity for skilled workers, such as “computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers.”
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Christian Reyes, an 18-year-old with an interest in electronics, says neither he nor his Mexican-born parents imagined he would veer toward manufacturing.
“We always figured you go to college to study to become a doctor or a nurse,” says Reyes.
On the recommendation of a high school teacher, Reyes took an internship at Felsomat during his senior year.
Felsomat hired Reyes after graduation, and he is now working toward a three-year degree in manufacturing at Harper College, which resuscitated a dormant manufacturing course in 2012 at the urging of local companies.
Career Academy, a public charter school located in South Bend, Indiana, also works with manufacturers to offer manufacturing and engineering courses.
For Ethan Wierenga, 15, Career Academy tailored a curriculum to his skills and recommended he also learn welding, an in-demand skill he could fall back on if he were ever to be unemployed.
Wage prospects for these new industrial workers might improve, too. Doug Porter, chief economist at BMO Financial Group, says employers will have to raise pay more to find the workers they want. The average pay for machine tool programmers has only risen 8 percent since 2008, just before the Great Recession took hold.
“There may be some areas where there are labor shortages,” Porter says. “But I am confident the market will adjust to meet demand.”