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By: Mark Glennon*


“About a third of our applicants fail the drug test. Another third lack basic life skills — like showing up for work on time. We’re left with the remaining third to find the particular skills we need, and that’s hard.”


That was told to me earlier this year by a veteran at a major Illinois manufacturer who is is also working hard developing one of the state’s manufacturing corridors. I’m leaving that corridor’s name out because I don’t want to single them out for having that challenge. It’s a common complaint from manufacturers elsewhere.


Efforts to stimulate the demand side of manufacturing jobs are now common. That’s as it should be. Few things would help address poverty and inequality like making demand for workers robust enough to push up wages. But make no mistake: A significant number of Illinois’ unemployed simply has to get the led out — clean up their act, get trained and want to work.


Examples of the difficulty of finding good manufacturing workers in Illinois aren’t hard to find. The Chicago Tribune had a lengthy article last week describing some. They include Felsomat, a German manufacturer in Schamburg that “has a talent problem that’s become a growth problem.” Crain’s, too has written about how local manufacturers are coping with the skills shortage in the applicant pool.


Part of the issue is training. A typical high school grad used to be able to walk into most assembly line jobs, but today’s jobs are more high tech and often require at least some specialized training. Here, state budget problems aren’t helping. A Medill Reports article this summer detailed the financial challenges faced by many community colleges that train manufacturing workers.


Still, that training is available at a reasonable cost, and graduates get good jobs. “I can virtually guarantee that anybody that goes through a community college training program and earns the industry credentials can go to work immediately,” said Jim Nelson, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, which represents 4,000 companies and plants in the state. Training costs look like a great investment for many. It costs $7,000 to pay for a two-year manufacturing degree program at Triton College in Illinois, for example, while graduates fresh out make about $45,000 a year. And the average manufacturing worker in American earns $82,000 per year, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.


Not everybody is convinced there’s a skills gap for manufacturing workers. A labor professor at the University of Illinois recently wrote that the gap is mostly a myth — that most employers have no trouble finding workers. That’s the minority opinion, however, with claims to the contrary being overwhelmingly common. It’s not just an Illinois problem. Other states with a traditionally large manufacturing base are also bemoaning a shortage, including Wisconsin and Indiana.


Let’s go back to that quote I started with — that two-thirds of the applicant pool can’t pass a drug test or lacks the basic commitment needed for any job. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but we know that 400,000 Illinoisans are unemployed and hundreds of thousands more are underemployed in low wage, dead end jobs.


Most of them are victims of a bad economy who deserve our compassion and best efforts to create more jobs. But to at least some of them, the message somehow has to be, “Get off your butt. Get the training needed and take the jobs that are available.”


*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints. Opinions expressed are his own.