Minnesota manfacturers put out the help wanted sign for skilled workersby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
While one might think the slumping economy would be the top worry for manufacturers in Minnesota right now, many companies say their biggest concern is the lack of skilled workers available to make their products.
That's what Governor Tim Pawlenty and state economic officials heard from some Brainerd area manufactures on Thursday.
Brainerd, Minn. — When all the noisy machinery is shut down, the manufacturing floor at the Wausau Paper plant in Brainerd, Minn., is actually a good place for a little get together.
"Thanks for coming out on a brisk Minnesota morning, and I'm delighted to be talking about the topic we have today, which is manufacturing in Minnesota," said Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Pawlenty was in Brainerd to talk to a group of about 75 people involved in manufacturing.
Pawlenty said he wants to hear the challenges their companies face. He said since 13 percent of the Minnesota workforce is involved in manufacturing, it's important to keep the industry healthy.
"So, if we don't have a healthy and stable manufacturing sector in Minnesota, we're not going to have a healthy and stable state," Pawlenty told the economy.
But the state's factory sector has been shrinking, despite a jump in employment last month.
Over the last year Minnesota lost 3,800 manufacturing jobs. About 55,000 jobs have disappeared in the last eight years.
Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Dan McElroy said the entire country has seen losses in manufacturing. In fact, 3.5 million jobs have been lost nationwide since 2000.
But McElroy said Minnesota manufacturers tell him they're looking for workers, but not for the low skilled manufacturing jobs of the past.
"Trades like machinist, plant electricians, welders ... engineers, skilled draftsman, the technical professions," McElroy listed some of the jobs manufacturers needed to fill.
McElroy said Minnesota isn't training its workforce at a fast enough rate to fill those jobs. He said Minnesota manufacturers should work closely with high schools, technical colleges and universities to make sure students know those jobs are available and are trained to fill them.
Mike Yaeger owns a manufacturing company in Waconia that builds parts and products for other companies.
Yaeger said small manufacturing firms like his, he employs 12 people, will make it through the down economy just fine.
"Still our number one problem in Minnesota is going to be workforce development and finding new employees. Not only to replace the old ones, but we're all growing," Yaeger said.
Yaeger's company experienced a slowdown in business late last year, but things are looking up this year.
That's because his company makes parts for medical device manufacturers, an industry that's stayed fairly healthy in Minnesota.
At any rate, Yaeger said many manufacturers are ready to hire workers with the right skills.
"Every job shop or contract manufacturing company I know would hire two or three good people if we could find them today," Yaeger said.
That enthusiasm for hiring still can't change the fact that a lot of manufacturing jobs in Minnesota have disappeared in recent years as more of them move to lower wage areas like China.
But Ernie Goss, a professor of economics at Creighton University in Omaha, said many of those jobs were low paying. Goss said at this point it's not necessarily a good idea to try to get them back.
"What Minnesota has to do, and the rest of the nation has to do, is attempt to focus on those industries where we do have a competitive advantage, and make sure we keep those jobs and make sure educational institutions, training institutions and the other support systems accommodate any growth that we expect," Goss said.
But Goss said that growth, even in the manufacturing jobs of the future, won't kick in until the economy improves. And he said that may not happen until early next year.
- All Things Considered, 03/06/2008, 5:55 p.m.