President Obama says the U.S. needs to make things again in order to be great. In fact, he is going a step further by making the recent resurgence of manufacturing in the U.S. a key part of his re-election campaign. Against that backdrop comes a strange reality: manufacturing companies are struggling to find enough people to program and operate the high-tech machinery that cut and mold and produce metal and plastic components at precision manufacturing companies in this country.

I have written numerous times in Staffing Talk about how many job openings are unfilled right now, despite a still high unemployment rate. Some commenters have said those are "phantom jobs;" that companies say they are unfilled, but that in fact the jobs really don't exist.

U.S. manufacturing companies have as many as 600,000 jobs that they cannot find workers with the proper skills to fill, according to a survey by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

U.S. manufacturing companies have as many as 600,000 jobs that they cannot find workers with the proper skills to fill, according to a survey by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

The survey finds:

  • 5% of current manufacturing jobs unfilled due to lack of qualified candidates
  • 67% of manufacturers have a moderate to severe shortage of qualified workers
  • 56% expect the shortage to increase in the next three to five years.

"These unfilled jobs are mainly in the skilled production category — positions such as machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors and technicians," said Emily DeRocco, president of the Manufacturing Institute, part of the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. "Unfortunately, these jobs require the most training and are traditionally among the hardest manufacturing jobs to find existing talent to fill."

Nearly two in three manufacturing executives surveyed say workforce shortages or skills deficiencies in production rolls are having a significant impact on their ability to expand operations or improve productivity.

Nearly two in three manufacturing executives surveyed say workforce shortages or skills deficiencies in production rolls are having a significant impact on their ability to expand operations or improve productivity.

Several years ago when I was editor of a business magazine, I met the CEO of a large, family-owned $110 million machine shop whose component customers range from Boeing to Harley-Davidson to companies you've never heard of.

This 80-year-old manufacturing veteran showed me two of his facilities: one was totally old school with aging machine operators using aging routers and grinders and lathes, standing ankle deep in metal shavings in a room smelling of oil and grease.

The other plant, down the road, was decidedly different. That one is home to a fully automated work holding assembly line that utilizes an intelligent robotics system. The robot(s) can perform quality testing, recognize bad parts, optimize machine usage and determine when to order more parts to keep the line going at maximum efficiency.

The CEO, whose dad started the business in 1946, told me has openings in both plants, but that he can't find near enough young people with the right training to run his increasingly complicated computer controlled machines. He says anyone with the right mix of math, mechanical and computer skills goes to college instead of vocational school, even if it means graduating with lots of debt and little prospect for a good job right away.

"Anyone with the right mix of math, mechanical and computer skills goes to college instead of vocational school, even if it means graduating with lots of debt and little prospect for a good job right away."

Last year 400 companies from all over the country contacted E.J. Daigle, director of the robotics and manufacturing programs at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, about hiring the 14 graduates of the two-year machine tooling program.

Daigle tells the Minneapolis StarTribune half of this year's projected graduating class of 21 are already working. By June all expect to have jobs with an average starting salary of about $35,000.

Many people contend the biggest threat facing the U.S. manufacturing sector isn't cheaper competition offshore from China or Mexico, but rather the gulf between the talents companies say they need to grow their businesses and the talents of those looking for work.

"When people talk about the decline of manufacturing, they're talking about the wrong kind of jobs," Daigle tells the paper.

"When people talk about the decline of manufacturing, they're talking about the wrong kind of jobs,"

The United States added more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs in 2011. However, there are not enough new machinists to replace the ones who are retiring, dying or changing careers. That's why, even though there will be 19,000 fewer machinists a decade from now, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says "job opportunities for machinists should continue to be good."

President Obama thinks the "made in America" message sounds good. He is seeking a reduction in tax rates for manufacturers and proposed tax credits to cover moving expenses for companies that brings jobs from overseas back to the U.S.

"Manufacturing is coming back," he said in Milwaukee on Wednesday. The question is, whether the right people with the right training will be available to fill those jobs.

What do we need to do to fill this gap between the needs of the manufacturing work place and the qualifications of the prospective work force?

Tags: Training, News, Hiring, Manufacturing, Job Openings, Skilled workers, Unfilled job openings