When CEO Rex Wetherill needed to quickly fill positions at Hydrotech, he hired employees right out of college.

"We usually want people with more experience in the field," Wetherill says of the Springdale fluid control company. "But it's incredibly difficult to find people with the skill sets we need to be effective."

Hydrotech, like many manufacturers in Greater Cincinnati, is struggling to find the right people to fill open positions. That could be a "potential source of drag on the economy," says Gary Conley, president of manufacturing consultant TechSolve. "There will be much lost opportunity for expansion and growth."

Manufacturing is a bright spot in the region's economy, employing 108,800 people "” 5,100 more than a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The sector is growing nationally, too, with more than 100,000 jobs added since January.

"As demand rises, keeping jobs empty becomes costly," says Ben Passty, director of the Applied Economics Research Institute at the University of Cincinnati. "It is easier to create the perfect candidate than it is to wait for the person who is the right fit."

Training for Growth

At Hydrotech, instead of adding experienced people and retraining them, Wetherill hired two recent graduates this summer "” an engineer and a marketer.

"Since we have to train them, we can really get them acclimated to what we do and the culture here," Wetherill says. Hydrotech designs, installs and distributes fluid power systems.

Jim Pickrel started as technical marketing coordinator in July, armed with a marketing degree from UC. He is learning everything from service and repair, to manifold and cartridge assembly, to design for the hydraulic pumps and pneumatic systems that Hydrotech supplies to manufacturers.

"I came in with zero experience in hydraulics and pneumatics," Pickrel says. "The engineering that goes into it is remarkable. There is so much done before we put it together."

As he learns the lines, Pickrel also will be teaching his bosses a bit about social media and brand development. "He is the same age as our future customer," Wetherill says. "And we need to know how they want to communicate."

Workers not prepared

At R&R Tool in Blanchester, co-owner Dan Reed gave up trying to find employees with the right experience.

"We just came off that requirement and decided to get people in and just train them," says Reed, who operates the tool and die contract machining firm with wife Bonnie. Reed says candidates with experience weren't being trained by previous employers to do more than one thing. "So when this downturn hit, they just weren't prepared to step into something new," he says.

That shift is rippling across the manufacturing landscape as more technology comes into play, jobs change and employers seek workers who can multitask "” troubleshoot, debug machines and change parts, says Mike DeVore, chair of the mechanical engineering technology program at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.

"They don't just want operators anymore," DeVore says. "You have to have people who can make adjustments if there is a specification that isn't right."

Young People Not Interested

At Monti, Inc., in Carthage, "We are always hiring qualified CNC machinists," says Molly Narburgh, human resource manager and daughter of CEO Gavin Narburgh. Monti makes conductors, insulators and steel parts for the electrical industry.

Finding experienced people is tough. Monti instead hires programmers and operators to run its machines. It is reaching out to vocational education programs, too, Narburgh says. Three high school graduates were hired to be machinists, and a college graduate who worked at Monti while in college recently started as an account manager.

"We want to start them off young so they can build with our company," Narburgh says. "But you rarely come across a college graduate who wants to work in a machine shop."

as a Creative Process

That lack of interest reflects a failure in the education system and a general degradation in the skill level of the workforce, says Richard Stevie, chief economist with Duke Energy.

He said many among the unemployed once worked in the construction industry as laborers. "The jobs being created now are in manufacturing, and they don't have the skills to make that jump," Stevie says.

To fill the skills gap, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Manufacturing Institute launched a joint effort this June to credential 500,000 community college students with skills certifications tied to manufacturers' needs. The "Skills for America's Future" initiative wants to reach that goal in five years. In the meantime, temporary labor firms are busy supplying workers for manufacturers who aren't ready to invest in immediate hiring. Gold Medal Products, a Cincy Manny Award winner, went that route, hiring a machinist and assemblers who first came aboard through a staffing agency during the busy April to August season.

Conley says the workforce issue is a frustrating problem.

"It is certainly much better to be faced with the problem of how to provide people with the preparation and education they need in order to enjoy the employment and jobs that exist than to have one where there is no demand for labor, regardless of qualifications," Conley says.

What Passty wants young people to realize is that the jobs are not just about pushing buttons. "Manufacturing will be driven by innovation and dynamics," he says. "Manufacturing as a process is more about creativity."

Mike Tonyan, Hydrotech's vice president of sales, marketing and technical training, interviewed six candidates for Pickrel's job. None understood the manufacturing aspects, but he says they became very interested as he explained it.

"It is something that is not projected as glamorous (in the media), and kids hardly get any type of exposure to it," Tonyan says.

Manufacturing is a field Pickrel says he didn't know much about.

"I'm fully vested now," Pickrel says, "and I think as young people (start to) see (that it) is not monotonous and you can get your hands on the product and it's fun, I think more will become interested." 

Still Growing

Manufacturing continues to show signs of growth, although things are slowing down, according to the Cincinnati Report on Business from the University of Cincinnati Department of Economics and the Institute for Supply Management "” Cincinnati.

The August Cincinnati Purchasing Management Index of 59.3  represents continued expansion for manufacturing in the region. A value above 50 indicates growth.

Jan. 56.8 May 62.3
Feb. 67.8 June 59.5
March 66.6 July 63.9
April 58.8 Aug. 59.3
Source: Cincinnati Purchasing Management Index (PMI) 2011