SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Chris Book never considered a career in manufacturing until he had no choice.
Laid off as an assistant manager at an Indianapolis Wal-Mart store in 2008, he spent more than a year looking for another retail job without success. Then a friend who worked at AAR Corp. at the Indianapolis airport suggested he apply there, even though he knew nothing about the aviation industry and wasn't mechanically inclined.
He decided to give it a shot.
"I just really needed to find somebody who would hire me so I could prove myself."
AAR, a parts and maintenance provider for military and commercial aircraft, hired the 36-year-old father of two from Avon in 2010, giving him a job handing out tools to workers. He eventually moved to a position on a utility crew, which allowed him to work in a variety of helper positions, then was accepted into the first class of a sheet metal apprentice program four months later.
AAR officials say they created the program because public schools and two-year colleges aren't producing enough qualified workers. Despite an unemployment rate hovering around 8.2 percent nationwide and 7.9 percent in Indiana, AAR and other companies are having trouble filling well-paying jobs.
"There are just not enough qualified people out there. So what we're trying to do is grow them ourselves," said Timothy Skelly, AAR Corp.'s vice president and chief human resources officer.
Many manufacturers have been forced to train workers themselves because they can't wait for them to go through schools, said Brian Burton, vice president of the Indiana Manufacturers Association.
"The more specific the job requirements, the harder it is to find individuals that have that kind of training," he said.
A survey of 1,123 manufacturing executives released last year found that 67 percent of companies had a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers. The report estimated 600,000 jobs nationwide were going unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates.
Businesses say the skills in shortest supply include tool and die workers, welders, robot technicians, mechanics and sheet metal workers.
Part of the problem is the changing face of manufacturing. The days of dirty factories where people with few skills did back-breaking work in dead-end jobs on assembly lines are pretty much gone, manufacturers say. Today's manufacturers need employees with math skills and the ability to use technology, computers and high-end electronics.
In Indiana, manufacturing now makes up 16.5 percent of the state's jobs. That's down from 21.4 percent in 2000, said Jerry Conover, director of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University. Even so, manufacturing still accounts for more than 440,000 jobs and more than a fourth of the state's economic output.
But it could be doing better. Skelly estimates AAR, which is headquartered in Wood Dale, Ill., near Chicago, and has facilities in 22 states, could fill 300 positions immediately companywide if it could find qualified workers. Other employers in Indiana say they can find workers, but it's taking much longer than usual because they need to go through more candidates.
Industry leaders say reasons for the shortage include attrition as workers laid off several years ago find new careers outside manufacturing, cutbacks in vocational training in public schools and a push by parents to have their children enroll at four-year colleges.
"There is a perception that manufacturing is not as sexy an industry as some others, like in the computer industry," said Dick Giromini, president and chief executive at semi-trailer maker Wabash National Corp. in Lafayette. The company has started a program to train people in welding.
"The reality is that manufacturing is making a comeback not only in job availability, but a revolution in the type of work that is done within the manufacturing sector," Giromini said.
Ivy Tech Community College is working to try to help solve the job skills gap problem, said Matt Bell, president of the school's Corporate College. The college reorganized its traditional workforce and economic development efforts last September by creating the Corporate College department to work with industries to identify needed skills and determine what classes to offer.
"We're working to address the challenges that employers are experiencing in finding qualified workers," he said.
Those involved agree, though, it takes more than offering the courses to solve the problem. Vincennes University has a tool-and-die degree program with 100 percent placement but can't fill its seats.
"We're out talking to high school kids every week trying to bring kids into the program," said Scott Wallace, the program's coordinator. "It's too bad we can't get enough kids into the program to meet the need, because manufacturing is desperate for employees."
Those involved say everyone involved — manufacturers, schools, high school guidance counselors and parents — needs to do a better job of letting students know there are good jobs available in manufacturing. Meanwhile, companies are coming up with their own ways to train workers.
AAR brings in utility workers at a lower wage and starts them on an 18-month program where they do general labor that doesn't require a license. Eventually, they move into a program that allows them to try to learn a skill and are assigned a mentor. They're given more complicated tasks and are tested every six months to make sure they are progressing.
Book said he was drawn to sheet metal work because he was impressed with the attention to detail, the craftsmanship and the pride of the workers. Now, the man who once paid people to work on his cars says manufacturing is his career.
"I'm enjoying what I'm doing. It's a lot different than what I'm used to. But that's what makes it exciting for me," he said.
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