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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.


About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer and mediator who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, nonprofits, and local government. As of 2022, I'm shrinking my legal practice so that I have more time to mediate real estate disputes. I'm happy to mediate using video platforms like Zoom and WebEx, or in person anywhere in Missouri.

2 responses »

  1. I read the original article, Harry, and lay a fair amount of the blame on the American dual track educational system, with a steep wall between them, largely due to the misconception that a person cannot work with both their head and their hands. As an undergrad the first time, getting a writing degree, I also wanted to learn printing technology (in the days before computers). I was told, at the school now known as Missouri State, that I could get a bachelors degree OR a technical certificate in printing but there was no dual track. So, I got the degree, and after working a couple of years, got the printing certificate at St. Louis County’s South County Tech high school, in a program designed for dropouts and ne’er-do-wells. The only way to fail was to not show up. Twenty years later, after a career in print machinery operation and in the midst of my geology degree at Mizzou, I quizzed professors up to the department head why summer term couldn’t be professional hazmat/hazwoper training– a prerequisite (in addition to the degree) for almost any entry-level geotechnical job, and was told, “we’re educating geologists not preparing people for the job force.” Nothing had changed. There is no reason why, for example, a person cannot get a two year liberal arts grounding and two years of technical training, and then you get an employee who both knows how to think, and appreciate life’s finer things, and can write a wonderful poem or insightful book, typeset it, save it as a pdf for the web, setup and run the press, clean the press, collate, bind and trim the pages and come away with a finished product, then post it to the internet. Ah, but to make either an academic or a technical teacher understand that! Oh, and there needs to be a few business/entrepreneurial classes and experiences in there too–then you can always make a job, if you can’t find one. That’s been my latest OJT, on the dark side of 50. Best to you and yours!


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