Jul 31, 2007

Manufacturing jobs in Michigan

At a meeting last week of SME chapter leaders and student chapter faculty advisors, one subject of discussion was Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s constant refrain that there are no manufacturing jobs here. In fact, I’ve been saying that laid-off engineers and skilled workers ought to take a weekend trip to Alabama or Georgia to see if they like it there.

Mostafa Mehrabi of University of Detroit-Mercy said that what he needed were statistics. I offered to chase some down. After all, most of us have been reacting to anecdotal evidence. So I took a look at two things – the Detroit News want-ads and the Michigan Department of Labor employment projections.

Realistically, there are flaws in the data. We don’t know whether the jobs open now pay as much as the UAW-negotiated wages. I studied the methodology of the US Census Department’s employment projections a couple of years ago. The first thing we know about forecasts is that they are always wrong. The projections take into account retirements and people leaving a job classification, with some sophisticated modeling of average attrition of distinct age cohorts. Unfortunately, they build up each projection from a number of individual job titles, some of which represent a small number of jobs. A system is more predictable than any of its parts, so when they total up a lot of little job classes, they introduce a lot of error into the mix. The margin of error for any of the small groups can be up to 20%. So let’s say there’s a possible average of 10% an overly optimistic projection.

As for one or two weeks’ study of one paper’s job ads, well, that doesn’t include jobs filled by word of mouth, internal postings or online advertising.

Openings have often been hard to fill, according to employers and workforce development people I’ve spoken to. That’s not because there is a shortage of workers. It’s because there’s a shortage of people with the right skills. For four-year and two-year colleges, that’s good news. You can’t just walk into the employment office of a factory the day after graduation from high school and get a job paying $20 an hour. (When I was married to an autoworker in the early 70s, he made twice what I could make as a college graduate with a degree in business.)

The other reason jobs are hard to fill is that they all require extensive experience. I can understand that. But that means employers need to look at their responsibilities to offer apprenticeships, internships and educational assistance. There’s the argument that you end up training somebody who immediately goes on to work for somebody else. Sometimes that’s true. But nobody complains about hiring someone that another employer trained. And it might not be a bad idea to compare executive salaries to what you’re paying factory workers or people just entering the workforce.

OK, what about the data I promised you? Here’s the Detroit News:

I noticed something else in this week’s paper. There are at least two companies advertising for a bunch of engineering, technician and skilled trades aerospace jobs. Must be a few companies taking advantage of the local high-skilled workforce. The market can behave in wondrous ways.

Now for the state departments of labor projections. I used Michigan, then added Indiana, Kentucky and Florida for comparison. No great amount of thought went into selecting states for comparison. I could have done more, but the site I used has a tedious download method. I selected a number of engineering, technician and production job titles, again, unscientifically. Then I totaled the numbers to keep from including 11 pages of data, so allow for compounding of error. (If you want the complete spreadsheet, email me at karenwilhelm[at]hotmail.com.) The projections are based on data collected every two years until 2004, so declines after 2001 are included. However you read them, the numbers say Michigan has a lot of job opportunities coming. You’re looking at annual job openings, the number available each year through 2014.

So maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to tell everyone to train for “technology,” meaning IT, jobs. There’s plenty of manufacturing technology work to go around.

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