KC-area manufacturers see shortage of skilled workers

Monday, September 1, 2014 | 7:40 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — A nationwide manufacturing boom has created openings for plenty of well-paying jobs, but company leaders in the Kansas City area say there aren't enough skilled workers available to fill them all.

As U.S. manufacturing continues its comeback from steep job losses during the recession, there are an estimated 600,000 manufacturing job openings, The Kansas City Star reported.

In the Kansas City area, several manufacturers with openings said their vacant positions would pay between $14 and $25 per hour. Some would be union jobs and others nonunion — either direct employment or through temporary or contract agencies.

Employers say they can't find the talent they need to run their sophisticated factory equipment and that school-to-work programs linking high school and college students with industrial employers are taking too long to reap results.

"It really has to start in junior high," said Steve Hasty, owner and president at A&E Custom Manufacturing in the Fairfax area of Kansas City, Kansas. "We can train our own welders, but it has to start with people who have respect for what we do, who are accountable for their actions, who are able to complete a sentence that our customers can understand.

"We're talking reading, writing, arithmetic, plus an attitude of 'What can I help you do?' rather than 'What can you do for me?'"

That's a common refrain from employers in any industry, but in the increasingly high-tech manufacturing world, it has become a national outcry.

"We're finding a lack of basic math skills," said John Patrick, president of Clay & Bailey Manufacturing in east Kansas City, Missouri, which makes fittings and accessories for the petroleum tank business. "Some applicants can't even read a ruler, let alone operate calipers or other measuring devices."

Training workers can come at a steep cost, said Jeff Owens, president of Advanced Technology Services, a training company that was spun off from Caterpillar to provide tech training to other companies.

"You could spend $10,000 a year per employee in training to ramp up their skills," he said. "That's a high number, but it's doable for big manufacturers. The challenge for smaller companies is to get an employee to the necessary skills," sometimes starting "below zero" with math ability.

There wouldn't be any shortage of qualified workers if companies would invest in training new hires, said Dave Flanders, president of Christopher and Long, a recruiting company.

"The shortage of 'good' workers is a myth," he said.

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