When Jason Baker landed a machine tool programming job seven years ago, he thought his career was set.
The son of a toolmaker, Baker was 19 and already making good money using skills his father taught him as a youngster.
Then a couple of years ago, B.A. Die Mold Inc. in Aurora, suffering under the weight of recession and global competition, slashed Baker's schedule from 50 hours to 20 hours a week. Now he is lucky to work a 40-hour week.
"I had to deliver pizzas and work in a friend's auto repair shop just to put food on the table for my fiance and myself," Baker said.
Baker's father, James, has not been able to find toolmaking work in more than two years.
Stories like Jason's are a big reason why young people now turn up their noses at manufacturing jobs that were once highly coveted because they paid high wages and required little formal education.
That is worrisome for manufacturers, who have laid off hundreds of thousands of workers in recent years but still cannot find enough people to fill jobs that require technological and other cutting-edge skills.
"Manufacturing does not have the respect of the population in general, so there aren't nearly as many people being trained for this industry as we're going to see retire," said Mary Wehrheim, president of Stanek Tool Corp. in New Berlin, Wis., a tool and die shop founded by her grandfather in 1924.
The dearth of newcomers is "going to put even more stress on an industry currently in recession," she said.
Manufacturing jobs still pay better than the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2000, annual compensation for manufacturing workers averaged $54,000, which is 22 percent higher than the rest of the workforce.
Yet many students, parents, educators and others view manufacturing jobs as "dark and dirty and dead-end," said Phyllis Eisen, vice president of the Manufacturing Institute, which plans to release a study in March on the reasons people are not flocking to manufacturing as they once did.
"Somehow it's lost its cachet," Eisen said, at the same time that many manufacturing jobs still available on U.S. soil have become cleaner than ever and more oriented toward brains than brawn.
That does not assuage concerns of parents and young workers who see the plight of people like Jason Baker and his co-worker, moldmaker Mike Moore.
Moore, 25, says it used to be that moldmakers could find a job "just stopping and getting a cup of coffee. Now I run into guys I used to work with, who showed me how to do things, working at Home Depot."
There were 16.7 million manufacturing workers in 2002, down by 1.7 million since 2000 and by 3.6 million workers since 1980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Eisen and many manufacturers say that, despite those numbers, there are solid jobs to be had in manufacturing. And if they are not filled, U.S. manufacturing and therefore the nation's economy could continue to suffer, they say. "Manufacturing needs all the talent it can get or we're sunk," she said.
Another problem with finding workers qualified for cutting-edge manufacturing work is that immigrants, who once represented a limitless pool of potential manufacturing workers, are at more of a disadvantage than they used to be.
"It used to be one machine, and you didn't have to speak English," said Davis Jenkins, senior fellow at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"Now it's a combination of not just high-tech machinery, but organizing workers so they can use different machines," he said.
The demise of many manufacturing firms and labor unions means that there are fewer training grounds for immigrants and others, Jenkins said.
As Baby Boomers and workers from older generations retire, "it's risky for the industry, because the knowledge is spread pretty thin," he said.
Vocational schools have not come to the rescue, manufacturers say.
JoAnn Woods, director of the Chicago Public Schools program that offers career and technical education training, points a finger at colleges, which are not educating people to teach manufacturing as they once did.
"Many state universities are no longer providing teacher education programs that relate to manufacturing," she said.
As manufacturing teachers retire, the problem has worsened and the school system has tried with mixed results to attract people in the workplace to become teachers.
W. James Farrell, chairman and chief executive of Illinois Tool Works Inc. in Glenview, says he has heard people bemoaning the lack of newcomers to manufacturing for decades.
"When I started, let's say 30 years ago, the skilled workers on the factory floor were lamenting the fact that they were not getting as many young people interested in their particular career path," Farrell said.
"But those same people were encouraging their kids not to go into manufacturing on the floor, to do better than they did," he said.
Farrell thinks that after recent upheavals in the economy settle, "people will realize manufacturing is much more important to our economic well-being than anybody really appreciated." And the workers will follow, he said, attracted by "the job becoming more cerebral and less physical."
"In manufacturing on the floor, the experience will be better than it was," Farrell said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun