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Economy & Business
Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Manufacturing Jobs Lost Their Luster


While Wisconsin continues shaking off the recession, thousands of workers still don’t have jobs. Yet businesses, particularly manufacturers, report having a difficult time filling certain positions. Several people actively addressing the problem defined it from their perspective.

Tim Sullivan says the skills gap began surfacing in the 1980s, while manufacturers were moving jobs overseas. Parents began encouraging their kids to attend college, so schools began focusing on college prep and dropping industrial arts.

"The American dream shifted from getting a good-paying job to getting a four-year degree," Sullivan says.

Sullivan, the former head of what was mining giant Bucyrus International, completed a report this year on Wisconsin’s skills gap.

He says the result is that not enough young people have acquired the technical skills needed to replace retiring babyboomers – and at a time when manufacturers want to move jobs back to the U.S.

Some skills are highly compensated, yet others have lost ground to inflation during the past 15 years. Sullivan's report describes how a high school graduate can live on a $12 an hour wage while building up experience within a manufacturing operation.

Desert Aire President Keith Coursin says at least this month, all 75 company positions are filled.

Keith Coursin, president of Desert Aire - a dehumidifier maker in Germantown, says manufacturing has gotten a bad rap.

“A lot of people view it as very dirty, very dangerous operations. It has changed. Manufacturing is very high tech,” Coursin said.

Coursin says the operation also need modern-day skilled workers - including people who know how to convert blueprints into machines.

“It’s not somebody you can hire off the street, but someone you can train. But it takes time,” Coursin said.

Coursin says it took him nine months to replace a retiring engineer. He says some talented prospects did not want to leave their existing jobs or move to Germantown. Other applicants did not have transportation – the company is not on a bus line, and another batch lacked job-readiness skills.

“We flush out probably two-thirds simply because they can’t pass a drug test, they can’t figure out how to show up every day,” Coursin said.

Coursin says he depends heavily on referrals to fill company jobs offering competitive salary and benefits. He says the HVAC industry maintains a pot of scholarship money, but it's never all used.

DRS Technologies near 30th and Capitol in Milwaukee has hired and trained 50 low-income people from the area to make electronics for the Navy. Pay starts at $12/hour with full benefits and grows to $20/hour.

Howard Snyder of the Northwest side Community Development Corporation says it lended federal money to DRS in exchange for it creating jobs in the economically distressed neighborhood, yet the company did its own recruiting and training.

“You hear people saying, we can’t stay in Wisconsin because we can’t find workers. In my judgment, they’re not really trying hard enough, and in some cases, they’re not trying at all.”