The start of a new welding program at Beal College in Bangor and the announcement of a new precision machine shop in York County’s town of Limington are some specific, local examples of the state’s continued need for workers who have the skills to fix and build products.
But it’s important to understand the manufacturing industry in context. Its needs are changing. Manufacturing businesses now require a greater number of workers with technical skills, and they can’t find them.
Getting those workers will require a number of approaches, including connecting businesses with workforce training options, ensuring that colleges have access to the equipment they need to train students and recruiting trained workers from out of state.
Part of the answer will also be to create awareness about the manufacturing situation. Though the industry has shrunk dramatically, segments of the industry — such as those relating to fabricated metal products and chemicals production for biotechnology and pharmaceutical fields — are expected to grow.
Here’s what has happened: Manufacturing positions accounted for 43 percent of nonfarm-related jobs 60 years ago, according to a new Maine Department of Labor report. In 2011 they accounted for only 8.5 percent.
Service-related jobs, meanwhile, nearly quadrupled in that same time period and are expected to create nearly 80 percent of all new jobs between 2008 and 2018, according to the Maine Department of Labor.
Looking ahead, the number of jobs needed to manufacture durable goods — such as fabricated metal products, electrical equipment and furniture — are expected to decrease 9.6 percent, to about 53,000 in 2018. Jobs needed to manufacture nondurable goods — such as apparel, leather and paper — are expected to decrease 11.4 percent, to about 24,300 in 2018.
Though manufacturing has and will shed jobs, production has remained steady due to technological advancements. Output increased 56 percent per worker between 2000 and 2011, even though positions were cut.
But while employers have not needed as many workers, they have seen an increased need for more educated workers. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of manufacturing employees with a high school education or less dropped from 66 to 51 percent of total employment. And workers with at least some college education increased from 34 to 49 percent.
Compounding the increased need for skilled workers is the impending loss of many experienced employees. Workers age 55 and older comprised 23 percent of the labor force for 2011, an increase from 13 percent in 2001. Being able to replace retiring workers is critical.
There are already more open manufacturing positions than workers with whom to fill them. The labor department reported that in June 2012 there were 615 job postings for production occupations on Wanted Analytics. Surveys of manufacturers have also found that many openings, particularly for machinists and precision manufacturing jobs, go unfilled.
Adjusting to the changing needs of manufacturers involves many people. Businesses should know about federal assistance through the Workforce Investment Act and state help through the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program. They can also connect with local workforce boards to find skilled workers in their area.
Community colleges can work with companies in specific fields, whether it’s logging or construction, to share often-expensive equipment needed for teaching future workers. And the state can change how it tries to attract out-of-state workers — to target people who have the skills needed to fill specific openings in Maine.
There are still jobs in the manufacturing industry — they’re just different than those held by the previous generation. Maine must adapt to ensure businesses have access to the skilled workers they need in order to remain competitive.