Midwest firms: Jobs exist, skills scarce

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U.S. unemployment is stuck at 9 percent. In Europe, the big story is the potential default of Greece. In the United States, it’s jobs, jobs, jobs.

By now, you’ve heard the chicken-and-egg dilemma: Businesses won’t hire until demand picks up. But there won’t be demand until more business creates more jobs.

Is the solution President Obama’s $447 billion jobs bill, which just got shot down in the Senate? What about cutting taxes and regulation, as Republicans argue?

Here’s a message from America’s industrial heartland: Manufacturing jobs are available. All too often, what’s lacking is people with the right skills — and attitude. And growth is what drives jobs. Jobs don’t magically appear on the factory floor.

On a trip to Wisconsin earlier this month, I visited custom extruder Teel Plastics Inc. in Baraboo and custom injection molder Plastic Components Inc. in Germantown. Both companies have launched new plants and increased production, despite the recession.

Teel moved into its 150,000-square-foot headquarters plant in 2007. The building is bright and airy. Between two banks of extrusion lines there is a central area with dies, rollers and downstream equipment fully organized, right at hand. The lunchroom belongs in a luxury hotel.

Teel Chairman Jay Smith said the building creates a positive work environment, important because operators and technicians handle quality control at the extruders.

Teel has met its aggressive goal of 20 percent growth over the last several years, even during the economic downturn.

Smith said Teel has hired 34 people in the last year. “A lot of these are skilled jobs. They’re engineering. They’re IT. They’re R&D. Sales. Analytical laboratory people,” he said.

The company now employs about 260 people in Baraboo, where it has four plants. Scott Baumbach, secretary of the Wisconsin Workforce Development, visited Teel to kick off September as Wisconsin Workforce Development Month.

Smith said a heavy investment in new products and technology creates demand for more skilled workers. “Productivity drives growth. Excellence drives growth. And growth is more jobs. You’ve got to pull that back into this country,” he said.

Over in Germantown, PCI President Tom Duffey pointed out that some work is coming back to the United States from China and Mexico. The U.S. manufacturing sector needs to step up.

“It’s not going to come back using the same labor-intensive model that we had for a hundred years in this country, because that’s why everything went to China and Mexico in the first place,” he said. “It’s going to come back because companies like PCI say ‘I don’t need to do that with 168 people. I can do it with automation and technology that is now available in the marketplace. But what I need are highly skilled technicians to make all of this run. That’s the job I’m going to create.”

At Plastic Components, seven people per shift oversee 42 injection molding machines. But now PCI is starting up a second plant in Germantown, a lights-out operation set up for long production runs. Zero employees. When production starts in a few weeks, four all-electric Toyo presses will mold parts removed by robots and put into boxes, and an automated box-handling system will move the finished parts to a loading area.

OK, not exactly zero people. And Wendi Jay, the human resources manager, just made another trip to Ferris State University, where she scouted out three interns for next summer to help with the new plant, which can be expanded up to 20 injection presses.

PCI had two Ferris State interns this past summer, and has offered a job to one of them. In May, the company hired a plastics engineer from the college in Big Rapids, Mich.

Two years ago, when PCI won our Processor of the Year Award, the company employed 50 people. Today after increasing sales and a new plant, the number is 54. That’s the definition of lean manufacturing!

Even so, Jay is always looking. “The right person with the right skills and the right mentality is always welcome. We’re always looking for that,” she said. “People who aren’t here just to work eight to five. And they want to be driving technology and change and they want to make us better every day.”

Obama’s proposed $4,000 hiring tax credit will do nothing to get this type of advanced industrial worker through the doors at a PCI or a Teel Plastics. The government does have a role: Revamp America’s industrial education. Promote engineering and chemistry. And everybody doesn’t need a four-year college degree.

But the manufacturing skills gap can’t be solved with a sound bite. Neither can any of America’s economic problems these days. The problems are too complex for the daily news cycle. Or a 140-word tweet.