TAMPA — The massive migration of manufacturing jobs out of the United States is often blamed for stagnating wages and the U.S. economy’s slow recovery from the Great Recession.
That thinking, although not entirely false, has led to another problem for American manufacturers: the so-called “skills gap.”
Manufacturing industries here are rebounding, led by computerized, highly technical workplaces, but many employers say they can’t find enough skilled workers to fill their job openings.
“There is a tremendous skills gap,” said Roy Sweatman, president of Southern Manufacturing Technologies in Tampa. “Kids have been pointed toward college, and everybody thinks manufacturing doesn’t exist in the U.S. anymore.”
The county government is ready to spend $1 million over two years to help address the problem. The county, working with education agencies and local manufacturers, plans to create an apprenticeship program that officials hope will spur some parents and students to rethink their career plans.
The payoff will be skilled employees for existing high-paying industries and a highly skilled workforce that can attract even more manufacturing here.
Though details won’t emerge until next month, early plans call for some of the money to be spent on scholarships to defray the cost of on-the-job training in a partnership with local manufacturers.
County commissioners also want to create a media campaign to draw students or adults looking for new skills into the program.
“We want to send a message out that manufacturing jobs are viable career options,” said Commissioner Sandy Murman, who has been involved in planning for such a program with educators. “The second part of that would be public-private partnerships with manufacturing to sponsor internships.”
Hillsborough County has close to 1,000 manufacturers, with more than 22,000 employees earning an average salary of $935 a week. But a survey of 89 manufacturers employing 12,000 workers in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties showed 2,100 unfilled jobs as of April 2013.
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In establishing the apprenticeship program, county leaders face a number of challenges.
For one, they want to have multiple opportunities for young people and adults to learn the skills they need to get a manufacturing job. To do that they have to incorporate existing vocational-technical programs in county public schools, at Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida.
“There’s not been a good connectivity between private-sector manufacturers and the groups doing the job training,” said Ron Barton, who heads up the county government’s economic development efforts.
County Commissioner Al Higginbotham became aware of the skills gap years ago when he sat on the board of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.
Higginbotham paid his own way to travel to Charlotte, N.C., to see that city’s mature apprenticeship program.
Like Charlotte, Higginbotham said, Hillsborough needs to form a consortium of manufacturers and training agencies.
“We’re going to pool our funds to train students,” Higginbotham said.
There’s no need to start a new agency whose start-up costs, Higginbotham fears, would consume most of the county’s $1 million contribution to the project.
Training programs already exist in public schools, the community college and the university.
Crafting a structure will be the job of Ed Peachey, president of CareerSource of Tampa Bay, the state workforce development organization for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
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That leads to the second challenge: Getting manufacturers to buy into the program. The value of apprenticeship is that students can learn in real workplace conditions. But the programs can be costly to a manufacturer because the student is not at full productivity during the learning process.
And skilled workers at the industry are not as productive if they have to spend time training the apprentices.
Peachey said he will work on recruiting manufacturers for the apprentice program during the next two months.
“None of this is going to work without the manufacturers being on board and lending us their expertise,” Peachey said
But perhaps the biggest hurdle, one identified by both industrialists and training agencies, is changing the image of manufacturing in the minds of students and parents.
Today’s manufacturing workers are not dressed in greasy overalls, performing mindless, repetitive tasks. More likely, they are operating computerized equipment that requires knowledge of math and science.
“People don’t really understand about high-tech manufacturing. They think it’s all assembly lines and ‘Laverne and Shirley,’” said Hillsborough Community College spokeswoman Ashley Carl, referring to the 1970s television comedy about two female factory hands.
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A good example of manufacturing’s new face is Roy Sweatman’s Southern Manufacturing Technologies in northwest Hillsborough County. Parts fashioned there regulate fuel in jets such as the Boeing 737 and 787.
When NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover settled down on the Red Planet, four jets with valves made by Southern Manufacturing cushioned the landing.
“Some of that money needs to be spent in a way to get people to know about manufacturing: the high-paying jobs we have that don’t require a college education and don’t require a lot of debt,” Sweatman said.
It will be up to Peachey’s workforce development group to not only mold the apprenticeship structure but to brand and sell it to parents, students, veterans and older people who need new job skills.
He and Barton, the county’s economic development chief, are to report back to county commissioners with a plan in April.
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