To hear participants at a forum of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland tell it, the problem of finding workers for manufacturing jobs isn't just a "skills deficit" -- but also an "attention" deficit.
Speaker after speaker yesterday recounted examples of people, often in their 20s, who'd just stop showing up at their workplaces. The efforts the panelists described about coaxing workers to keep coming to work left the audience slack-jawed, particularly during a time of high and lengthy rates of unemployment.
"I've gone out personally recruiting, trying to hire 'millennials' and they have interests besides a job," said William Tiger, manager of General Motors Corp. Baltimore plant. "They've been told over and over again that they're going to change careers five or six times. They've become conditioned to that, and the feeling seems to be, 'This is my first one. Where do I go next?'"
The topic drew a large audience to the RMI Breakfast Series because the so-called "skills gap" has become a major issue for manufacturers nationally. The subject also surfaced when the executive board of the National Association of Manufacturers met with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke this week.
As one RMI panelist said, after a generation of downsizing, American manufacturing now has growing pains in the opposite direction. Many promising young people appear tentative about getting into a sector -- manufacturing -- that through their eyes seemed stable and rewarding for their grandparents, but rockier for their parents or uncles and aunts. Woody Allen famously said "80 percent of success is showing up," but many seem unfamiliar with that theory (and probably with Woody Allen, too.)
Jenny Williams, a human resources manager at Middle River Aircraft Systems, described her task of hiring 350 people in a short period to build a new model for Boeing -- and then having to let go one-third of them for attendance issues. None of the group were dismissed for skills or training shortages, she said.
"If we could screen for attendance (issues) ahead of time that would be a gold mine," said GM's Tiger, who faces the challenge of building a workforce for a new task -- building electric motors for cars. Even during the vetting process, he said, 25 percent of people routinely don't show up for their scheduled interview. He assumes in many cases they didn't really have their heart in it and only signed up because a mom or girlfriend "kicked them in the butt" to sign up.
Neill Christopher, vice president of manufacturing operations at Acadia Windows & Doors, said his Rosedale company schedules all job interviews for 8 a.m. with the premise that they'll be able to tell right off the bat if someone can get themselves awake and ready for work.
Even paid benefits didn't seem a sufficient carrot in many cases. Middle River Aircraft offers employees $250 a quarter if they opt out of benefits if they can get health insurance through a spouse. But some drop it regardless to get the cash and wind up in a fix later. One worker hopes pain pills get him through his tooth ache until the next open enrollment period -- in 6 months.
Helen Delich Bentley, the former Maryland congresswoman and a major proponent of manufacturing in Maryland, lamented that too many high school students graduate without skills for the work world. Her comments drew applause and "amens."
Williams of Middle River Aircraft responded while there was plenty of blame to go around, including in education, ultimately employers were the ones with the pressing need to find solutions -- whether by funding their own in-house training, partnering with a community college or creating a "skills matrix" bonus program at Marlin Steel. Marlin received the Metalforming Pioneer Award this year in part for the establishment of that program.