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Employers: Jobs are out there, skilled workers not

The latest unemployment statistics gathered by the state Department of Workforce Development show 240,000 Wisconsin residents were seeking jobs in August.

The latest unemployment statistics gathered by the state Department of Workforce Development show 240,000 Wisconsin residents were seeking jobs in August.

Yet a job posting maintained by the same state agency lists nearly 34,000 available positions.

The seemingly incongruous numbers are no surprise to many state employers, who report having a difficult time finding qualified workers to fill open positions.

"It's a huge problem," said Mark Tyler, president of OEM Fabricators, which makes steel components for manufacturers at plants in Woodville and Neillsville and is opening a new facility in Prentice. "We've had 20 to 30 positions open for several months that we really struggle to fill, and we actually have to turn work away as a result."

The issue, Tyler said, is a frustrating disconnect between the skills required by employers and the skills available among unemployed workers.

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"We've heard time and again of this mismatch where you have approximately 120,000 individuals on unemployment insurance and yet employers have been telling us that they can't find, for example, welders or other skilled workers," DWD spokesman John Dipko said.

To help close the gap, the agency has actively been promoting its job listing site, which already in 2011 has exceeded the number of jobs posted all of last year, Dipko said, noting that it is free, available 24 hours a day and includes many other resources for job seekers.

A search of the site Thursday for jobs in Eau Claire County revealed 793 openings for 432 jobs.

"Good jobs are available," Dipko said.

While that's true, DWD regional economist Scott Hodek acknowledged that doesn't mean economic conditions are rosy.

"It's not an illusion that people think things are still somewhat tough out there," Hodek said. "The economy still isn't growing that fast -- we only nationally grew by 1.3 percent in the second quarter -- and there's so much volatility going on like with the European Union that we just can't control."

Contrary to outdated "Rust Belt" perceptions, many of the jobs being created are in the increasingly automated manufacturing sector, but they generally require a lot of skill, Hodek said.

"It's a good trend in the economy because the more productive we get, the better we're able to compete on a global scale," he said, acknowledging that isn't much consolation to the person with no job and limited skills.

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Dipko called it a "manufacturing-led recovery" and pointed out that more than half of the 29,600 private-sector jobs created this year in Wisconsin were in that sector.

Among the jobs DWD reports as having the most openings: welders, advanced manufacturing workers, machinists, technicians and manufacturing engineers.

OEM Fabricators -- which employs 370 workers, has added about 220 employees since the depth of the recession and expects to add at least 100 more jobs in the next year -- is seeking highly trained welders and machinists, but Tyler said there just aren't enough in the region to fill its needs.

"I deal with that every single day," said Tyler, board chairman of the West Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board and member of the UW System Board of Regents. "And anybody that's in a growing manufacturing business is in the same boat as we are."

Christopher Smith, director of the Dunn County Economic Development Corp., said he also has heard reports from area employers experiencing difficulty finding skilled workers.

The region's higher education institutions are attempting to address the shortage by working with employers to provide retraining options, sometimes going into employers' workplaces to target the skill sets of specific workers, Smith added.

Chippewa Valley Technical College, for instance, has responded by adding more capacity and technology in several programs in which graduates are in high demand, CVTC President Bruce Barker said. The institution also provided customized training for more than 7,000 existing workers last year.

"Business needs are opportunities for our students," Barker said.

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At the root of the mismatch between job openings and job seekers is a large pool of unemployed workers used to making decent wages in old-fashioned manufacturing jobs requiring little skill or advanced training, Tyler said, adding that many of those jobs have been outsourced to overseas locations with much lower labor costs.

"The days of highly paid, low-skilled jobs are gone, and they're not coming back," he said. "In today's manufacturing environment, you need more than manual dexterity to qualify for a job."

The solution, he said, is to get current and future job seekers to understand the needs of modern employers.

"We need to get high school students and their parents to understand where the jobs are and what skills are needed to land those jobs," Tyler said. "We also need to get unemployed people back into training and get their skills up so they can get into those jobs."

Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209, 800-236-7077 or eric.lindquist@ecpc.com .

(c)2011 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)

Visit the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.) at www.leadertelegram.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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