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Skills gap leaves Missouri manufacturing jobs unfilled


Manufacturing in the United States and the export of manufactured products from the United States is growing. If jobs could be filled, production and exports could rise. Nobody is opposed to products being manufactured in the US for domestic use and for export.

According to an article in St. Louis Today, citing a study by the Manufacturing Institute, with results confirmed by St. Louis area businesses, thousands of manufacturing jobs are going unfilled because of lack of qualified applicants. And technical colleges have additional capacity to provide the needed training.

After World War II, manufacturers of shoes, clothing, furniture and other products moved into the small towns and cities of the Ozarks, taking advantage of a surplus of mostly non-union, low-skilled workers. Manufacturers later arranged for their products to be made in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin American, then in Asia, seeking lower labor costs and less environmental and worker-safety regulation. Most towns in the Ozarks have vacant manufacturing facilities, even though transportation systems and location with respect to markets have never been better.

Universities and colleges are everywhere, offering all kinds of courses in residence programs and at satellite campuses, with opportunities for online education for students of all ages.

Where are the students who want to learn practical mathematics and how to operate computer-controlled design and manufacturing equipment? Some of them are in the military services. Others are working in unskilled jobs, never having become aware of their own potential to learn and earn. Others are in the gray-collar world of retail and services, where hours are long and wages and benefits skimpy.

While the St. Louis Today article blames the shortage of trainees for modern manufacturing jobs on the widespread acceptance of the value of a college education–as though the college credential had value even without skills to go with it–I’d place part of the lack of interest in manufacturing on the bad experience with manufacturing in the Ozarks. In the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, the manufacturing workers in the Ozarks experienced low wages and benefits, workplace injuries, frequent layoffs, and union-busting, ending with their abandonment (I am not forgetting that these low-wage jobs were better than no jobs and sometimes were the best jobs ever available in some communities for many people).

Manufacturers locating plants in the Ozarks asked poor communities for subsidies in the form of property tax abatement and general-obligation bond issues to for construction of facilities. Some plants polluted streams or left toxic wastes.

The manufacturing of today is much different. It’s cleaner and safer. Workers with training and skills can earn as much or more than many people who have college degrees and obtain as much or more job security. Here’s hoping that Missouri’s technical schools will be seen as the gateways to the good life, rather than an undesirable alternative to college.

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