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St. Louis Post-Dispatch: St. Louis area factories say they have plenty of work, but not enough skilled workers

NTMA featured in St. Louis Post-Dispatch article.

Monday, January 16, 2017
Tim Laciny pointed at a couple of idle machines on the big shop floor at Laciny Brothers in University City.
 
“I have work and machines — and nobody to run them,” Laciny said. “Probably my biggest problem is finding machinists.”
 
Manufacturing employment is down just 1.3 percent in metro St. Louis in the year ending in November. But that disguises a serious shortage of workers in highly skilled factory trades.
 
“It’s a problem today, and it will be a bigger problem going forward because of the graying of the workforce,” says Sally Safranski, chapter executive in St. Louis for the National Tooling and Machining Association.
 
Factories around St. Louis can find plenty of people for grunt jobs — lifting boxes, sorting parts and such. They have a much tough time finding hands-on machinists, computer numerical control, or CNC, machine operators, toolmakers, industrial electricians, multi-skilled maintenance mechanics and other jobs that require math talent and a couple of years of schooling.
 
A recent national survey of association members found that 90 percent have moderate or serious trouble finding qualified employees.
 
So, jobs paying $20, $25 and sometimes $40 an hour are going unfilled.
 
The St. Louis region’s 4.3 percent unemployment rate — a 15-year low — is part of the reason. But manufacturing executives complain that young people just aren’t training for the work.
 
It seems that factory work has an image problem.
 
Laciny’s shop floor is a busy place. About 34 people work designing and making specialized machinery and parts. All pretzels made at Gus’ Pretzels come out of a machine built by Laciny. A pint poured in a St. Louis brewpub may have passed through a Laciny device. He’s now making fermenters for the giant Gallo winery in California.
 
On the shop floor, Tim Laciny holds up a long, shiny metal arm with a hand rest at the end. It’s part of a special device to help a handicapped woman in Clayton move from a wheelchair to shower.
 
“We don’t have a product line. We are job to job, and we never know when the next job is coming in,” Laciny said. “I don’t sell products. I sell talent.”
 
So, he needs talented machinists who can craft odd metal and plastic parts. They are very hard to hire.
 
“I have tried everything — trade schools, hiring from high school, headhunters.” He runs a perpetual help-wanted ad.
 
He’s picked new high school graduates, hoping to train them, but often found they lack basic skills. “It’s basically all math and hard labor. I have had kids that make the effort, but they don’t have the brain power.”
 
So, he finds himself having to farm out some work that he’d rather do in-house.
 
“I had a machinist that left for Ameren, and he was making six figures,” Laciny said. “Once they become great, they want more money.”
 
Around St. Louis, the median wage for a machinist is $22 per hour, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.
 
Wages are rising at 3 to 5 percent a year for skilled workers at Homeyer Precision Manufacturing in Marthasville, where a top toolmaker can earn $80,000 to $100,000 a year. “We’ve had to entice them with better insurance, retirement plans, vacation days,” says Herb Homeyer, company president and chairman of the National Tooling and Machining Association.
 
(Read more here.)