California manufacturing, still reeling from the exodus of jobs to Mexico and Asia, could rebound in the next few years, according to the Employment Development Department. EDD's job out- look is encouraging: The number of metal and plastic machine tool operators is projected to increase 42 percent in the next three years, adding nearly 1100 new job openings.
"EDD appears to have evidence that manufacturing has continued to grow, but we aren't seeing it right now," cautions Matthew Mckinnon, secretary-treasurer of California Conference of Machinists. "Maybe when we get through this Sept.11 business we will see these glowing predictions become reality. We will just have to wait."
The China Syndrome
He points out two factors adding to manufacturing's woes - fewer schools offer machinist training and President Bush recently gave China most-favored nation trading status.
"We currently have a trade imbalance with China . . . that means the US is buying more of their products than China is buying of ours," McKinnon says. When that happens, American buying power supports foreign employment.
He also says there are one million jobs in Mexico that weren't there 10 years ago. Such factors lead him to predict that only the most technically sophisticated manufacturers will remain in the US.
Gino DiCaro, director of communications at the California Manufacturing and Technology Association in Sacramento, points out that manufacturing jobs are leaving the state faster than any other industry.
"The production costs are going up because of the rise in energy rates and unemployment payments," he contends. "Right now we don't see any relief but I hope I am wrong. I think the unemployment rate in the manufacturing community will stay at the same level or increase."
Jobs, however, do exist for jobseekers willing to look beyond the hard numbers.
Most machinists work in small machining shops or in manufacturing firms that produce goods such as metalworking equipment, industrial machinery, aircraft, motor vehicles or farm equipment.
For over 70 years, American Alloy Welding & Machine Co. in San Francisco has carved a niche with specialty welding.
"It's not just welding two things together. We repair the original part with an overlay in an abrasive atmosphere to make it last longer," explains owner Bob Perkins. "These are used in quarry rock crushers, industrial pumps and valves in ships."
He says his business stays busy but he is having a hard time hiring employees because knowledge of the trade is a necessity.
"It's hard to come in green," he states. "We find we don't have time to teach them. Most of the high schools have dropped machine shop so there is no such thing as trade schools anymore. They seem to be concentrating on teaching everyone to use a computer."
Perkins says it's also hard to compete in salary. Although the union shop pays $22 an hour plus benefits, jobseekers are pursuing more lucrative jobs to afford Bay Area living. He says all the industry is leaving the city and machine shops are disappearing with it.
"I think there is definitely a niche in our industry for someone who wants to work hard," he contends.
Stairway to Work
Brian Scallon, shop foreman at Carmichael Machine Co., jokes that in his business you start from the ground up and hope for the best. His firm manufactures spiral steel staircases, stair rails on new homes and all the ironwork for the McDonald's restaurants in the area.
He says he acquired an interest in the business when he was 14 years old and stuck with it.
"Basically the shop courses in high school just spark your interest in the field but don't offer any solid training," he says. "In my business, I take people off the street and train them. All they need is a little experience - the big part is showing up for work everyday. Today's work ethics are terrible."
He explains he is a certified welder who has to ensure the finished parts meet specifications to pass inspection. Certification and metal fabrication courses are offered at just about all the local community colleges including Sacramento City College, City College of San Francisco, Evergreen Valley College, San Jose and Chabot College, Hayward.
Scallon reports metal fabricators are earning $10-14 an hour depending on skill level. Pay climbs with experience. He sees the most openings in mechanical layout within the manufacturing sector. He says all you need is a little experience and a mathematical mind. In short, if you have some basic skills to visualize things logically, you are in demand.
His shop, like most in the Sacramento area, is nonunion.
"I don't know anyone in the business who would not be willing to train somebody who would show up everyday wanting to work," he states. "There is a desperate shortage of people who want to work and to learn. I have some people here who are awesome. I wish I could clone them."
Troops to the Rescue?
Fred Ruegg, president of Elma Electronics in Fremont, a company that manufactures and assembles electronic components, is hoping President Bush's promise to increase defense spending will help his industry.
"We are hoping for a major boost, but I don't know how much of the budget will go into weapon manufacturing," he says. "Potentially it should have some benefits for California manufacturing, but it will take time."
He predicts the hottest job opportunities will be in fiber optics and adds candidates should have a strong engineering background to get noticed - that's the key.
And what about the future of the state's manufacturing? Ruegg says he's optimistic but realistic.
For more information, check out these sources:
- California Conference of Machinists - (916) 444-5599
- California Manufacturing and Technology Association -
(916) 441-5420, cmta.net
- American Alloy Welding & Machine Co. - (415) 822-8323
- Carmichael Machine Co. - (916) 944-2853, pisor.com
- Elma Electronics - (510) 656-3400, elma.com
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