Blue-collar workers have an image problem

Well-paying jobs go begging as few learn skills to fill them


September 10, 2000|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

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.

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