Selling manufacturing to a new generation - The Buffalo News

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Selling manufacturing to a new generation

Manufacturers across the United States are targeting schools and colleges to let young people know there is more to manufacturing than pulling levers on an assembly line.

“People still have the idea that manufacturing is a dirty dungeon place,” said Andy Bushmaker of KI Furniture, a maker of school desks and cafeteria tables in Green Bay, Wis. The goal, Bushmaker said, is to get people to see manufacturing jobs as the high-tech, high-skilled and high-paying careers that they can be in the second decade of the 21st century.

Today’s manufacturers, whether they are making cars, airplanes or iPhone parts, are looking for engineers, designers, machinists and computer programmers. Manufacturing has moved from manual mills and lathes to computerized numerical control equipment and 3-D printers. Hand-held welders are being replaced with robotic welders. Industrial maintenance mechanics no longer need to know how to use a wrench, but they have to be able to operate a “programmable logic control,” or a digital computer, to fix the machines.

Many of the jobs pay well – the average manufacturing worker in the United States earned $77,505 in 2012, including pay and benefits – but they can be hard to fill.

Nationwide, U.S. employers reported last year that skilled trades positions were the most difficult to fill, the fourth consecutive year this job has topped the list, according to the 2013 Manpower Group talent shortage survey. A 2011 industry report estimated that as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs were vacant that year because employers couldn’t find the skilled workers to fill them, including machinists, distributors, technicians and industrial engineers.

Across the country, states and municipalities are offering programs to recruit young people to manufacturing.

In Buffalo, much of the state’s pledged “Buffalo Billion” is going toward boosting manufacturing. About $225 million is being spent on the Buffalo High-Tech Manufacturing Innovation Hub at RiverBend for clean energy and high-tech businesses. It will be located on the former Republic Steel site in South Buffalo.

Also, the $54 million Buffalo Niagara Institute for Advanced Manufacturing Competitiveness, planned for the former SmartPill building at 847 Main St. on the Medical Campus, aims to provide sophisticated equipment and support services for local manufacturers. It will focus on flexible automation and controls, advanced materials and testing and other advanced manufacturing sectors.

And up to $10 million is planned to be spent on a workforce training center, likely to be located in the City of Buffalo, to work with local manufacturers to identify the skills that are in demand and create a pool of trained workers to fill local factory jobs.

Welding, for example, used to be one of the most difficult jobs to fill. Only 28 welders graduated from the Northeast Wisconsin Technical School in 2005. But five years later, that number jumped to 109 graduates. Today, 180 welders are enrolled in the program and welding has dropped to No. 8 among the hard-to-fill jobs, said Ann Franz, director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance.

President Obama wants to build a network of “manufacturing hubs” to bring together companies, universities and other academic and training institutions to develop the latest manufacturing techniques. The president announced in February a new public-private partnership near Detroit devoted to developing new types of light weight metals and another in Chicago to concentrate on digital manufacturing and design technologies.

Manufacturing hubs already have been established in Youngstown, Ohio, and Raleigh, N.C. The initiatives use money from the U.S. Defense and Energy departments that is already budgeted, since Congress has balked at the president’s $1 billion price tag for the hubs.

As part of this effort, employers such as Dow, Alcoa, and Siemens are partnering with community colleges in Northern California and South Texas on apprenticeships in advanced manufacturing occupations, such as welding. In Minnesota, a coalition of 24 community colleges, led by South Central College, is pioneering a statewide apprenticeship model in mechatronics.

Last month, the Obama administration announced $100 million in federal grants for creating or expanding apprenticeship programs. At the state level, Rhode Island this week enacted the state’s first registered manufacturing apprenticeship program while last year Connecticut increased the manufacturing apprenticeship tax credit to $7,500 from $4,800.

Apprenticeships are “underappreciated and underutilized,” according to U.S. Secretary of Labor and Buffalo native Thomas E. Perez.

Perez said that when he hears a parent say, “I don’t want my kid to do an apprenticeship; I want my kid to go to college,” he points to the program at Tampa Electric in Florida, which pays apprentices about $32 an hour as they learn how to maintain and repair electrical power systems and equipment. They can earn as much as $70,000 as full-time employees.

“There is a bright future in America for people who work with their hands,” Perez said. “We need to do a better job of marketing it, explaining to parents and others that these jobs are tickets to the middle class.”

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