Where Jobs Go Begging

January 18, 1995|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich walked through a grease-stained Baltimore dredge maker yesterday to hear first hand about one of the oddities of the U.S. workplace -- high-paying jobs going begging because of a dearth of skilled workers.

"Here we have a company providing good, solid middle-class jobs, paying well, requiring some skills but not four-year college degrees," Mr. Reich said after his one-hour visit to Ellicott Machine Corp. in South Baltimore. "There is a major mismatch in this country right now between what employers need and the skills, or the lack of skills, millions of workers fail to have."

The solution, he said, is in President Clinton's proposal to provide tax cuts for education and job training as well as outright vocational grants of $2,000 to $3,000 a year. "What I hear from employers and from employees, that's exactly the steps we need to go in."

It also was exactly what he heard at Ellicott.

After a quick look at company memorabilia -- which dates to the first decade of this century, when the company built dredges that dug the Panama Canal -- Mr. Reich, Mayor Kurt Schmoke and United Steelworkers of America officials walked the well-worn concrete floors of the main shop, stopping for explanations of metal drilling and cutting machines.

Then in a room off the shop floor, 19 people sat down at tables covered with brown wrapping paper to talk jobs as the clanging and grinding of metal drowned out parts of the discussion.

"There aren't a lot of people out there," said Ellicott President Peter A. Bowe, lending support to Mr. Reich's argument. "We have people coming in with orders that we have to turn down."

With crane work from the Maryland Port Administration and from foreign contracts, the 109-year-old company has increased its production staff from 30 to 50 people in the last year. But even with that, Mr. Bowe said, he could hire another six qualified machinists and four welders immediately if he could find them.

And these jobs pay $12 to $14 an hour and more for overtime -- which most of the workers are putting in.

"What we need is a little more apprenticeship," said Joseph J. Taylor, 58, a machinist who has worked at Ellicott for 39 years. "This experience goes out the door with me unless there is somebody for me to train."

But while Mr. Bowe liked the idea of training grants, he said an old-fashioned apprentice program funded solely by the company has problems.

"You got a guy who has to sit on the side and not do anything for a long time," he said. "For a small employer, its hard to do that."

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