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Busting myths about manufacturing jobs

Bob Kill says his mission is to undo a stereotype.

"We've told a whole generation of kids that manufacturing is not a good career," the CEO of Enterprise Minnesota said minutes before he testified at a Senate hearing last week. "It's a second choice."

A second choice that can have first-rate pay, benefits and job security.

Kill oversees a Minneapolis nonprofit consulting firm that helps small and midsized manufacturers find properly trained workers. He was among eight business leaders who testified about a skills mismatch that has left 600,000 manufacturing jobs begging for qualified applicants, even as millions of Americans remain unemployed. Meanwhile, the U.S. issues thousands of visas annually to foreign workers to help fill the positions.

"These aren't your grandpa's manufacturing jobs," said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion, where Kill testified. "I see this as the only way to compete on the international stage."

While the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. has shrunk, the country continues to be the world's largest manufacturing economy. The U.S. Labor Department reports that manufacturers currently employ 12 million workers. It also says the manufacturing sector has created 470,000 jobs since January 2010.

Young Americans and their parents see manufacturing through a decades-old lens that distorts the new reality. Those who lived in factory towns where the plant closed are wary. The challenge for recruiters is to unwind myths.

Businesses and schools need more sophistication than they once did to make the case for vocational and technical education. One of the most important elements, said Kill, is to show the end product to the young people targeted to make it. To do that, a new high school in Alexandria, Minn., will include permanent space for advanced manufacturers to display their wares.

"Typically, these are not the dirty, gritty jobs that they used to be," Kill said.

Most require computer literacy and formal certification of skills, some of which are generic, others highly specific. Those who meet the standards enjoy job placement rates in excess of 90 percent, above-average pay, good benefits and stable employment. "We're in a different kind of manufacturing now," Klobuchar said in an interview. "There's just a much better chance that when you get this 'technical' degree that you have a degree that you can use for life."