CHICAGO, Sept 8 (Reuters) - When 17-year-old Brian Dardon told his mother he wanted to pursue a career in manufacturing, she was full of apprehension.
To Diane Dardon, a Protestant chaplain at a Chicago university, manufacturing meant performing rote, unskilled tasks with little job security.
“It all seemed so much less than exciting as a career prospect for him,” she said.
But then Brian took an internship at local manufacturer Engis Corporation, where he was asked to brainstorm to fill customer orders. His mother now sees that an industrial job can offer a “creative outlet for his talents.”
Brian has just started his senior year at Wheeling High School in the Chicago suburbs, and his school district offers a manufacturing program with companies in the “Golden Corridor,” a long strip rich in manufacturers that runs through the northwestern suburbs. Brian now plans to go to college to pursue qualifications that will prepare him for a career in manufacturing.
The future of manufacturing in the U.S. will largely be shaped by the strength of the U.S. dollar, energy costs and the outcome of trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But companies face a human challenge too - how to recruit young Americans to replace millions of Baby Boom-generation employees retiring over the next decade.
Nationwide, the number of apprentices fell more than 40 percent from 2007 to 2013 to under 300,000, according to government data. But then they rose around 10 percent in 2014 when, in a rare act of bipartisanship, Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which provides $3 billion a year for training programs. Several presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle, including Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, propose expanding apprenticeships.
There’s an economic imperative behind the politics. U.S. manufacturers can’t find enough candidates: from January to June of this year, the manufacturing sector averaged 68,000 unfilled jobs per month, according to government data.
Industry executives are discovering it’s not enough to convince students. They have to overcome the doubts of parents, who have watched manufacturers lay off U.S. workers and ship their jobs overseas for decades.
“Convincing parents that manufacturing is not just a dirty dying business and is a viable alternative to an expensive college degree with no guarantee of work at the end of it is a major challenge we face,” said Dick Gilchrist, chairman of the U.S. division of Felsomat, a German company that makes assembly line machinery for automakers such as General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co.
Inspired by similar programs in Germany where industrial apprenticeships are more common, Gilchrist recruits at area high schools and hosts open houses for kids and parents, where he extols training programs paid by employers and job guarantees. It beats spending tens of thousands of dollars on a four-year college degree, he says, only to see their child work as a barista.
“When we get parents in here, their eyes get real big, real quick when they see how modern and clean our facility is,” he said.
Overall, the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is still 15 percent below pre-recession 2005 levels. But advocates of manufacturing training say there is an impressive growth opportunity for skilled workers, such as “computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers.”
The number of such positions, which require the ability to write instructions for factory floor robots, is up 40 percent from 2005. The mean annual wage for machine tool programmers last year was around $50,000.
The money is an issue for parents and for good reason: Average manufacturing wages in the U.S. have grown by 20 percent over the past decade, slower than the 30 percent increase in overall U.S. wage growth - which in turn has lagged inflation.
Christian Reyes, an 18-year-old with a budding interest in electronics, said neither he nor his Mexican-born parents ever imagined he would veer towards manufacturing.
“We always figured you to go college to study to become a doctor or a nurse,” said Reyes. “But no one in our family had any idea you could study manufacturing.”
On the recommendation of a high school teacher, Reyes took an internship at Felsomat in 2014 during his senior year.
Felsomat hired Reyes after graduation and he is now working toward a three-year degree in manufacturing at Harper College, a community college that resuscitated a dormant manufacturing course in 2012 at the urging of local companies.
Career Academy, a public charter school located in South Bend, Indiana, works with manufacturers like auto supplier Federal-Mogul, to offer manufacturing and engineering courses.
For Ethan Wierenga, 15, Career Academy tailored a curriculum to his skills and recommended he also learn welding, an in-demand skill he could fall back on if he were ever to be unemployed. Now, his mother, Anne Wierenga, says she’s confident her son will “not be living in the basement when he’s 40.”
Wage prospects for these new industrial workers might improve too. Doug Porter, chief economist at BMO Financial Group, said employers will have to raise pay more to find the workers they want. The average pay for machine tool programmers has only risen 8 percent since 2008, just before the Great Recession took hold.
“There may be some areas where there are labor shortages,” Porter said. “But I am confident the market will adjust to meet demand.”
Additional reporting by Fiona Ortiz in Chicago; Editing by Joe White and Mary Milliken