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Posted: April 01, 2013

Training in transition

Despite offshoring, manufacturing is up – and so are job prospects

Nora Caley

Manufacturing did not disappear; it just changed. There has been much offshoring over the years, but companies are still making things in Colorado.

According to the Colorado Department of Labor & Employment (CDLE), in December 2012 there were 5,311 manufacturing establishments employing 133,400 people in the state. That’s an increase of 4,000 workers compared to December 2011.

Wade Troxell, mechanical engineering professor and associate dean for research and economic development in the College of Engineering at Colorado State University, says manufacturing has become so important that President Barack Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union address in February.

“There is a lot of innovation in creating new ways of making things,” Troxell says. “A lot of transition is happening. Manufacturing now is high-tech, using new innovative processes.”

Part of the transition relates to the new workers. Instead of pulling levers, many of today’s manufacturing workers are programming computers, working on computer numerical controlled (CNC) machines or troubleshooting software. Others are performing more traditional hands-on tasks such as welding, soldering and electrical work.

Area employers are having trouble finding both types of workers.

“When the country started outsourcing manufacturing, we stopped training,” says Geri Anderson, vice president for academic and student services and provost for the Colorado Community College System. “Now the industry is coming back to Colorado, and it’s no longer Laverne and Shirley or Lucy with the chocolates.”

Anderson acknowledges that the references to decades-old television programs may be lost on millennials. So is any hint that manufacturing is now high-tech or interesting. “We have not communicated that to our young people,” she says. “So now we have this huge skills gap.”

Employers are struggling to find people with the right skill sets, agreed Aleta Sherman, regional director for Northern Colorado for the Colorado Association for Manufacturing and Technology (CAMT).

“The types of jobs that are hardest for them to fill run on either end of the spectrum,” she says, citing a 2012 survey that Workforce Boulder County conducted among 30 manufacturing companies. Employers are having the most trouble finding engineers, followed by machine operators and skilled tradespeople.

Also according to the survey, 90 percent of the companies expect to grow 5 percent to 20 percent over the next year. So where will they, and other Colorado firms, find workers? Some are partnering with colleges and universities to make sure graduates have skills that match the manufacturers’ needs.

Kids today

Jeff Popiel, president and CEO of Geotech Environmental Equipment in Denver, says one problem is that most schools don’t emphasize manual tasks anymore. “When we were in school we had trade-skills classes such as machining, automotive and woodworking,” Popiel says. “Then everything was sent overseas.”

Some manufacturing is being re-shored to the U.S. as offshore workers’ wages are growing, shipping charges are increasing and in some cases, quality control is lacking. Other manufacturing never went to developing countries because it needs advanced technology, not low wage, low skilled workers. Either way, as the jobs are created, certain skills are becoming important, and schools need to teach these skills, Popiel says.

One effort is House Bill 1165, which would create a manufacturing career pathway for students. The bill, which is currently in the Appropriations Committee, would require collaboration among the State Board for Community Colleges and Occupational Education (SBCCOE), the Department of Higher Education (DHE), the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), and the CDLE in designing this career pathway, which would have to be available for students beginning with the 2014-15 academic year.

In the meantime, colleges and universities and local manufacturers say they are training students for these manufacturing jobs, which according to the CDLE pay an average weekly wage of $1,140.

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Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in business and food topics.

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