BEMIDJI - We have jobs available.
That is the message the manufacturing industry is trying to get out here to the public, particularly those assessing their future career goals.
Manufacturing employers have job vacancies open now, but they have not been able to find the skilled workforce they need.
"About half the jobs in America, in terms of what we do - machining - are open," said Andy Wells, owner of Wells Technology in Eckles Township norhtwest of Bemidji. "We would hire five more employees if they came to the door and were trained. We would hire them right now, but we don't get them."
In 2011, there were 995 people in Beltrami County who were employed in manufacturing, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. That's up about 50 jobs from the previous year, but down from the 1,354 employees in the same second quarter of 2006.
But those in the industry are working to get the word out that jobs are available.
Karen White is the executive director of 360 Degrees, Manufacturing & Applied Engineering Center of Excellence at Bemidji State University. In that role, she works in support of the manufacturing industry throughout the state.
Technological advances have dramatically changed job functions within the manufacturing industry, White said. As technology has increased, composition of the workforce has transitioned from having unskilled workers to more highly skilled workers who utilize computerized equipment and program processes.
"It shifts their workforce needs from a general laborer to a much more skilled (employee)," White said.
The manufacturing industry now needs people who can program computers and operate high-tech equipment.
"The thing about automation is it may remove the repetitive mechanical-type motion jobs, but they've replaced them with the high-tech service tech (jobs), programming, operations," Wells said.
Companies are seeking those with at least a certificate from a technical college all the way up to those with master's degrees.
"We're seeing also that a lot of these programs at technical colleges at universities are not as attractive as other programs," White said.
The industry and its partners, including 360 Degrees, are working to educate prospective students about the industry itself. Gone are the dark and dingy manufacturing lines. The workplace now is clean, white and bright.
White said 360 Degrees has undertaken three key efforts to educate the public about the manufacturing industry. It sponsors summer technology camps for middle and high school students, hosts robotics competitions, and partners on a statewide Dream It, Do It recruitment initiative to show the public how important manufacturing is to the economy.
She said 360 degrees this fall hopes to again support a statewide effort to get manufacturing businesses to open their doors to public tours.
Wells himself undertook his own initiative to identify and train prospective employees as he founded the Wells Academy in 2006. More than 40 people have taken part in the Academy since it began. It recently celebrated the graduation of three individuals, all of whom have gone on to work full-time for Wells Technology.
The Academy is set up to respond to participants' skills and career goals. The basic program can last three to four months to quickly get participants into the workforce while others can opt to remain in the program for up to a year to explore advanced machine operations.
Manufacturing, White said, is all about teamwork, problem-solving and computers, but the public does not understand that.
The industry has jobs available that offer good, family-supporting wages, she noted.
"The public is not aware of the tremendous career opportunities in the high-tech manufacturing world," Wells said.