Skilled Labor Pool Shrinks Manufacturing Sector Seeking Ways to Replace Aging Work Force

Article excerpt

Byline: Shayna Chabner Medill News Service

His hands - rough, cracked and soiled black with tool and wax residue - are a sign of the trade.

More than 23 years in manufacturing will do that, Ron Vollman says. His hands are a constant, much like his 50-hour work weeks.

Vollman, 43, is a foreman of texturing and etching at Elmhurst- based Comet Die and Engraving Co., where he has spent the last two decades. He's the leader of a three-man crew responsible for bringing texture into our lives.

With the help of black wax, paint brushes and acid, Vollman's team creates texture on everything from leather-like yearbook covers to ridges in plastic juice and milk jugs.

As the United States struggles to hold on to manufacturing jobs, highly-skilled workers like Ron Vollman knock down $75,000 or more a year.

Despite the pay, though, in the last decade Vollman has watched the pool of tradesmen, as well as highly-skilled tool and die workers and machine operators, diminish.

Many mold, etching and tool and die shops were forced out of business in the late 1990s during a manufacturing downturn, leading to many layoffs, said Comet Die President Michael Donlin. Now, as the industry picks up and customer demands increase, many companies are strapped for skilled workers.

"People didn't want to wait any longer, so they found another trade," Donlin said, who has 65 employees.

In a 2003 survey the National Association of Manufacturers found that 80 percent of respondents said they had a serious problem finding qualified candidates for modern manufacturing tasks.

"What's happened is manufacturing has picked up again and because you can't train them overnight there is a shortage," said Bruce Braker, president of the Tooling and Manufacturing Association. Apprenticeships to train skilled workers run anywhere from two years to five years, depending on the trade, he said.

While some large companies run their own apprenticeship programs, that's too expensive for many small companies, Braker said. …