CHICAGO - For years, manufacturers looked for regions with ``low labor costs.'' Given today's low unemployment, however, some companies are asking a different question: Will there be any labor available to staff the plant? ``It's a tough question in certain areas,'' said Craig Hamilton, manager of the Iowa Area Development Group, one of about 35 economic development agencies casting the net for plastics processors at Plastics USA, held Sept. 12-14 in Chicago.
U.S. unemployment has stood at 5.5 percent for much of this year. Media reports portray a shortage of skilled factory workers. A front-page Wall Street Journal story Sept. 8 told of Lincoln Electric Co. in Euclid, Ohio, which can't find qualified people to fill factory positions paying $8-$20 an hour. Closer to home for the plastics industry, a company official said Hoffer Plastics Corp. of South Elgin, Ill., recruits on a perpetual basis.
Iowa, like most states, has a few areas with unemployment much lower than the already low national average, approaching just 2 percent.
``Iowa as a whole is in the 3.5 percent range in unemployment,'' Hamilton said.
There are pockets in the northwest and southwest parts of the state with unemployment slightly above 2 percent, he said.
Development officials at Plastics USA said companies are asking more questions about worker availability before making a decision on where to locate new plants.
``It is one of the critical factors,'' said Roland Pe¤a, an economic development specialist at West Texas Utilities Co., based in Abilene.
Texas, with nearly 60,000 plastics jobs, has a statewide unemployment rate of about 6 percent. But in Pe¤a's territory, which cuts across north central Texas, the rate varies from 4.5-32 percent, he said.
Of course, no local development official is going to complain about low unemployment. The Piedmont Triad, a 12-county region in North Carolina, boasts 3.5 percent unemployment.
``We feel that our unemployment rate is indicative of a healthy economy,'' said Robert Marshall, vice president of economic development at the Piedmont Triad Partnership of Greensboro, N.C.
A booming local economy also means families are relocating, bringing in spouses, sons and daughters looking for work, Marshall said.
Even states that have suffered from high unemployment for years are enjoying good times. Alabama's 6 percent rate ``has been among the lowest rates that Alabama's had in a long time. We've had a lot of growth and expansion,'' said David Echols, project manager of the Alabama Development Office, a state government agency.
In West Virginia, which is still recovering from declines in the coal and steel industries, statewide joblessness stands at 8-10 percent, said Moses Zegeer, a manager in the state's Development Office.
The Mountain State even puts it in writing: Companies moving to or expanding within the state will have a qualified crew. Under the Governor's Guaranteed Work Force Program, the government helps pay for training. If a company is still skeptical, the state will do a test help wanted ad in a local newspaper to measure response, Zegeer said.
Like tax breaks, state-funded training to help lure companies has become a common denominator, a given that most states now offer. Many will tailor training to a specific type of manufacturing. For example, Texas funds a $30 million Smart Jobs Fund Program.
As West Virginia's Zegeer put it: ``Training is not an issue anymore.''
Typically, once an area develops a strong plastics industry, local colleges and technical schools have followed up by creating formal training programs. A more recent trend has machinery manufacturers setting up regional facilities that offer training courses.