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Metal Manufacturing Sector Faces Shortage of Workers

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AUMSVILLE, Ore., July 14, 2012 — At Eagle Tanks in Aumsville, Ore., it may take three months for a new hire to really become a productive employee.

Michael McAllister, the company’s operations manager, said many experienced welders haven’t done the type of leak-proof welding that’s required for Eagle’s above-ground, steel tanks.

Abel Nañez welds a large above-ground tank at Eagle Tanks in Aumsville, Ore. Salem, Ore.-area metal
manufacturers are having trouble finding enough skilled employees. Photo courtesy Statesman Journal

It’s not only technical skills but basic “soft skills” — those abilities required for practically any job — that manufacturers like Eagle Tank need and are having trouble finding.

“It’s hard to find people who want to show up on time and be dependable,” McAllister. “A lot of people look at this as a paycheck rather than a career.”

In this time of high unemployment, certain blue collars skills are in short supply. A survey of fabricated metal manufacturers in the Mid-Willamette Valley indicates many job applicants are unprepared for work.

The survey, done by the Oregon Employment Department, took responses from 70 metal manufacturing companies in Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties. It’s a first step toward identifying weakness in the workforce and developing a strategy to address problems.

About a third of the companies that responded to the state’s survey struggled to fill at least one job. In all, 148 positions were vacant at some point in 2011.

The occupations in highest demand: welders; structural metal fabricators and fitters; and computer-controlled machine tool operators.

Ray Burstedt, president of Strategic Economic Development Corp., said he’s often heard manufacturers talk about a skills gap in the workforce.

“The problem they’re having is the people with these skills are starting to retire,” Burstedt said. “There aren’t people coming up through the ranks with the right skills set.”

Metal products manufacturers cited the ability to operate computer-numerically controlled machines as one of the most important skills they needed. It also was among the most elusive skills to find among job applicants.

Brooke Jackson, analyst with the Oregon Employment, said part of the problem is manufacturing isn’t always viewed as a viable career path.

“The manufacturing industry has been in decline. People see that and they don’t realize there are jobs still available,” Jackson said. As a result, she said, the opportunity to train for a new career is overlooked.

Character traits, such as integrity and reliability, were mentioned as an area of concern in the survey. Two-dozen respondents complained that a lack of “work ethic” among job applicants was a problem.

“I was surprised at the soft skills side, just the number (of employers) who mentioned there were soft skills lacking,” Jackson said.

Few job applicants demonstrated good communication skills in the opinion of the manufacturers. Beyond speaking and writing, employers wanted workers who could understand and follow directions.

Eleven companies said the struggle to find applicants with the right soft skills was a barrier to the company’s growth.

Some of the survey respondents maintained that it was difficult to train soft skills to employees. In their view, the worker either had those qualities or they didn’t.

On a national level, the skills gap issue has generated a number of reports. The Oregon Employment Department decided to take a look at the issue on the local level, choosing the metal fabrication industry for its pilot survey.

Depending on the response to this first survey, the employment department may do similar surveys of other industries in Oregon, Jackson said.

Source:, © 2012 All rights reserved.


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