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Manufacturing: A good fit in a growing field

Nov. 12, 2012 - 06:15PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 12, 2012 - 06:15PM  |  
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When Capt. Holly Mosack left the Army in 2004, she took a job managing a high-rise in downtown Columbus, Ohio.

She had overseen administration and finance for an infantry brigade in Iraq, so this seemed like a fit. But she failed to factor in one critical element. "I was working with lawyers," she said. "They would complain that the quality of the toilet paper wasn't good enough."

The point here is not to bash lawyers. It's that Mosack did eventually find a place where her military sensibilities of service and camaraderie fit right into place.

She went into manufacturing.

"I like the blue-collar environment, where people are hard-working, where they come in and want to do a job. That's the military, and that's manufacturing," said Mosack, who directs military recruiting at Advanced Technology Services in Peoria, Ill. Of the company's 3,000 employees, 28 percent are veterans. Most work maintaining equipment at manufacturing facilities.

There is good evidence to suggest that Mosack made a sound career choice in jumping into manufacturing.

"These companies are hiring, and they are finding that it's difficult to find qualified individuals to fill many of these positions," said Evren Esen, manager of the Survey Research Center at the Society for Human Resource Management.

More than two-thirds of manufacturing companies that were hiring last year told SHRM that they had trouble fulfilling specific positions. Of those:

* 89 percent were having trouble finding high-skilled technical people such as technicians and programmers.

* 83 percent could not locate skilled tradespeople such as electricians and carpenters.

* 80 percent had unmet needs for managers and executives.

At the same time, manufacturers have been bringing veterans on board at an increasing rate. In a 2012 SHRM study, 59 percent of respondents said they have hired veterans in the past, up from 44 percent in 2011.

"So there appears to be a fit. These companies are finding that veterans do have these transferrable skills," Esen said.

What collar?

Not all manufacturing jobs are blue collar. In fact, factories today are driven increasingly by technology, and the mix of jobs in the manufacturing sector bears this out.

The 10 most in-demand manufacturing jobs, according to the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness:

* Sales representative

* Mechanical engineering

* Computer software engineer (applications)

* General & operations manager

* Retail sales

* Maintenance and repair worker

* Computer systems analyst

* Industrial product manager

* Manufacturing engineer

* Computer software engineer (systems and software)

The White House this spring announced a number of initiatives to help troops transition from their military roles into these civilian positions.

In partnership with the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps each will conduct a pilot program for a limited number of service members to achieve industry-recognized credentials to help transition into advanced manufacturing and logistics roles.

Through a partnership between the Army, American Welding Society and National Institute for Metalworking Skills, the Army's Ordnance School will be accredited to provide unlimited certification testing for soldiers with certain machinist and welding skills.

Through another partnership with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, the Army will expand certification opportunities for service members in highly-specialized and technical engineering fields. Engineer officers and warrant officers may attain Certified Manufacturing Technologist or Lean Bronze Certification credentials.

Why the growth?

If manufacturing represents a hot job market, experts say, there are a few good reasons.

First, there's the longstanding perception that factory work is undesirable — dark, dirty and dangerous. That's keeping skilled people out of the workplace, and it's a shame because it's just not true, Mosack said. "There is state-of-the-art equipment. These are very clean, air-conditioned environments. It's not what people think."

The other driving factor: A higher quality of life in China. With an emerging middle class there and higher expectations regarding wages, American companies can't bank on the dirt-cheap production costs that once drew them to Asia. Add the rising cost of transport and one starts to see companies returning to the U.S. in search of skilled labor.

A survey by the Hackett Group consulting firm found that 46 percent of executives at European and North American manufacturing companies were considering returning some production to the U.S. from China. Another 27 percent said they were actively planning for or were in the midst of such a shift.

Employer's view

At Meadville, Pa.-based Channellock Inc., which makes dozens of kinds of pliers, Vietnam vet Terry Ferrell is feeling the skills shortage. As director of engineering and manufacturing services, he interviewed 22 candidates recently to fill a single maintenance position.

Few were qualified. Among those who did have the skills, most flunked the drug test. That's a big plus for military candidates, who in his experience show up drug-free.

Ferrell is always happy to see a veteran walk through the door. "A lot of courses that they offer in the military are similar to what they offer in vo-tech schools — jobs like machinists, maintenance technicians, electro-mechanical technicians, guys who are … troubleshooters in the electrical field," he said. "Maybe you go from one brand machine to another brand machine, but it's still pretty straightforward."

Ferrell advises veterans to take manufacturing seriously. Many skills transfer. The money's good. And the China situation will keep pushing jobs this way. As production costs in China rise and the cost of oil for transportation climbs, "it's just a matter of time until it catches up," he said. "All that is going to help the United States."

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