James L. Brown tried to hire a dozen workers for his metal foundry here. Half of them flunked the drug test.
Those results are typical, says the president of Bremen Castings Inc, a family-owned employer of 350 workers who make parts for trucks and other equipment. Drug problems are one factor contributing to a labor shortage that delayed filling orders earlier this year.
“We’ve become a recruiting company,” Brown said of the relentless struggle to maintain a strong workforce.
Bremen Castings illustrates the central tension in U.S. manufacturing: Plant managers complain of a talent shortage, while workers see too few acceptable jobs.
The paradox has echoed through the presidential campaign, with both major candidates lamenting the loss of factory jobs – even as unemployment in most industrial regions has dropped to rates usually considered healthy.
The jobless rate in the county surrounding the Bremen plant, for instance, is less than 4 percent, according to state data. The national rate is 5 percent.
Such statistics, however, obscure the struggles of manufacturers and workers, particularly in the Midwestern U.S. Factories in the countryside are distant from pools of unemployed workers in cities. Drug tests are disqualifying more applicants. Low wages discourage others from taking jobs that are available, and employers say tougher immigration enforcement makes it difficult to fill many low-wage jobs.
The problem boils down to a quality issue on both sides: Employers gripe about workers with little work ethic, while employees decry falling pay for the kind of jobs that once fed families.
The logical response to a labor shortage is to raise pay enough to attract a quality staff, but many manufacturers say they can’t afford it in an era of rising global competition.
Bremen Casting in August raised its starting wage to $14 per hour from $13 – after raising it from 11.50 earlier this year. The company pays up to $27.50 for its top hourly workers. Brown said he’s nearing the limit of what he can pay because of pricing pressure from his customers.
The upshot is that most factory jobs, in the view of many blue-collar Americans, have been redefined as lower-level work. The average wage on factory floors fell below the average for all U.S. workers in 2006 and now sits at $20.57 per hour.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Special Report: U.S. manufacturing economy fails employers and workers | Reuters