Blue-collar workers have an image problem


The shortage of skilled workers in the manufacturing industry means David R. Gischel has two options. He can either accept printing jobs he's not sure his company can handle, or refuse the business.

"We turn away jobs, then they might not come back," said Gischel, vice president and co-founder of Victor Graphics Inc. in Southwest Baltimore, which prints material for colleges and universities and is looking to add three or four more workers. "It affects our relationships with our customers."

The print shop, just off Interstate 95 and recognizable by the 20-foot fiberglass pineapple on its roof, is one of many local manufacturers struggling to find the manpower to keep up with business.

Manufacturing employees are the second most difficult workers to find - behind those in technology fields - according to a survey commissioned by the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education. Fifty-two percent of the manufacturers surveyed said they had "a great deal of difficulty" finding the workers they need, while 38 percent said they had some difficulty.

"The biggest effect is that it hurts our state's economy and really hurts people who own or are employed by companies suffering from a lack of skilled workers," said Michael Galiazzo, executive director of the Regional Manufacturing Institute.

If current productivity trends continue, the country will be short 309,000 manufacturing workers by the year 2004, according to the Employment Policy Foundation, an economic think tank in Washington. The number is expected to reach 576,000 by 2008.

At Kenlee Precision Corp. in South Baltimore, which makes parts for the semiconductor industry, the shortage was so severe that three months ago the company was forced to recruit workers from England.

"There was just nobody out there," said Bill Lambka, manufacturing supervisor. "They come here on 18-month visas, then they're gone and we start the cycle again. I'd much rather have people here trained."

State economic development officials say they have several initiatives to address the worker shortage in Maryland, and Del. Katherine Klausmeir plans to introduce legislation in the next General Assembly session that would provide incentives to skilled workers from other states who move and fill vacant positions here.

While any help is welcome, those in the manufacturing sector say the larger problem is image. Until the public - particularly school officials and parents - view manufacturing more favorably, employers say, the problem won't go away.

"People think of the shop floor as a dirty, greasy place to work with no air conditioning and older men working in bib overalls," said L. Patrick Dail, project director of CAD/CAM 2000 at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville, a program that teaches machining skills to displaced workers.

"Career counselors at high schools and parents still have an image in their minds of manufacturing being a dirty, hot place to work and not very rewarding, when it can be."

And the highly visible job losses at some large local employers such as Bethlehem Steel Corp. and General Motors has given manufacturing a rustbelt taint.

Maryland's 177,000 manufacturing jobs make up just 8 percent of the state's total work force vs. a national average of about 15 percent.

Manufacturing workers in the Baltimore metropolitan region make an average of $836 a week, according to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. That compares with $617 for those in the service sector, $346 for retail and $1,045 for those in finance, insurance and real estate.

And many new manufacturing jobs have a high-tech edge. Ciena Corp., the fast-growing manufacturer of fiber-optic networking equipment, has been gobbling up about 10 to 15 new workers every week since 1996 and sees no end in sight. The Linthicum firm, which had only about 300 workers when it went public in 1997, now employs 2,700.

"It's a tough market out there," said Rebecca Seidman, Ciena's senior vice president for human resources. "We fight for every person we have."

Galiazzo says that nothing short of a full-blown media campaign extolling the virtues of a career in manufacturing is needed to spark interest

"Not brochures that say, 'Gee whiz, we've got programs in manufacturing,' " he said. "I'm talking about a major media campaign with television ads and billboards."

His group envisions a three-year, $1 million media blitz. But the problem is finding sponsors. "That's where it breaks down every time," he said.

A viable plan, Galiazzo said, might be to have manufacturers pay half the cost with the state kicking in the other portion. But employers, he said, are so focused on financing recruitment efforts for current vacancies that they don't have resources left over to help change the larger picture.

J. Alexander Doyle, president of Micro Machining Inc. in Baltimore and past chairman of the Maryland Manufacturers Association, said he is particularly frustrated with educators' lack of knowledge about manufacturing jobs and their view that sending students down the vocational path is a dead-end journey.

The stigma is particularly galling, he said, because the numbers paint a different picture.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the number of jobs that will require a two-year associate arts degree or post-secondary vocational training will grow 23 percent by 2008. The number of jobs that will require a bachelor degree or higher will grow by 21 percent.

Additionally, only about 30 percent of all high school graduates in the United States go on to earn four-year degrees.

"What happens to the other [70 percent]?" said Doyle, who is looking to fill two positions. "To resist the tech track that gives students opportunities just because there's a stigma does a horrible disservice to students."

His 14,000-square-foot Woodlawn shop, which makes precision machine parts for clients like AlliedSignal and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, looks more like a laboratory than a manufacturing facility. The air is clear, the floors clean, the climate controlled and the noise level low. The 26 employees make between $7 and $20 an hour, depending on their positions, plus full benefits.

"I run into so much resistance when I talk to teachers and guidance counselors," Doyle said. "They don't want to hear about these trades."

Katharine Oliver, assistant state superintendent for career technology and adult learning, said many educators are open to the manufacturing sector, but she agreed not everyone is on board.

"I think that we're doing better than we've done, but unfortunately I would say the change is far more incremental than I would like it to be," she said.

She noted that the schools have tried to respond to the demands of manufacturers - and other businesses - for better-prepared high school graduates.

For example, more than half the state's high schools are partnering with community colleges in programs that allow students to take college preparatory courses that give them credit toward the two-year colleges - decreasing the time they must spend in post-secondary institutions.

The state also now requires high school students to take three math classes instead of two, and it changed the science requirement to three laboratory classes; previously the three classes did not have to include lab work.

Oliver said more teachers and counselors are also participating in "externships" in which they spend time in real work environments.

"They're the ones transforming experiences in a manufacturing plant into lessons on math or science and bringing it to life," she said. "And they are giving students an understanding how it might be used in the real world and what the career opportunities might be."

Richard C. Mike Lewin, secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development, said his office is also working to supply manufacturers with the employees they need.

"Seemingly more and more in this entrepreneurial economy, new businesses are being born and they are sucking workers away from older, established businesses. It's something I worry about a lot."

He said state officials are trying to address the problem with initiatives such as worker training programs, a Web site that will bring workers and employers together and marketing campaigns aimed at out-of-state workers.

Bringing out-of-state employees here also is the aim of Del. Klausmeir, with her pending bill that would lure workers to Maryland. "We should keep trying to train people, but it's not happening quickly enough. It's important to think outside of the box."

Just as the state offers incentives for companies to move to Maryland, she envisions incentives to individuals. The state might pay moving costs, offer low-interest mortgages or help pay college tuitions.

"Any time I go to [Regional Manufacturing Institute meetings] I hear the mantra, 'We need more workers, we need more workers,'" she said. "This is a different twist on the whole situation."

Klausmeir and Galiazzo, along with Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr. and Del. Peter A. Hammen, will hold a workshop on the proposed legislation Thursday to get more input from manufacturers.

Any help can't come soon enough, employers say. "Recruiting is a major concern for us," said Gischel, of Victor Graphics. "It's probably second only to getting customers."

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