Where are the workers?

Why does the phrase, “I told you so,” come to mind? A recent article in the New York Times about a company unable to find workers caught my attention.

The article, written by Stephanie Clifford and published in the paper’s Sept. 29 edition, begins:

MINNEAPOLIS — It was past quitting time at a new textile factory here, but that was not the only reason the work floor looked so desolate. Under the high ceilings, the fluorescent lights still bright, there were just 15 or so industrial sewing machines in a sprawling space meant for triple that amount.

The issue wasn’t poor demand for the curtains, pillows and other textiles being produced at the factory. Quite the opposite. The owner, the Airtex Design Group, had shifted an increasing amount of its production here from China because customers had been asking for more American-made goods.

The issue was finding workers.

“The sad truth is, we put ads in the paper and not many people show up,” said Mike Miller, Airtex’s chief executive.

The American textile and apparel industries, like manufacturing as a whole, are experiencing a nascent turnaround as apparel and textile companies demand higher quality, more reliable scheduling and fewer safety problems than they encounter overseas. Accidents like the factory collapse in Bangladesh earlier this year, which killed more than 1,000 workers, have reinforced the push for domestic production.

But because the industries were decimated over the last two decades — 77 percent of the American work force has been lost since 1990 as companies moved jobs abroad — manufacturers are now scrambling to find workers to fill the specialized jobs that have not been taken over by machines.

Wages for cut-and-sew jobs, the core of the apparel industry’s remaining work force, have been rising fast — increasing 13.2 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis from 2007 to 2012, while overall private sector pay rose just 1.4 percent. Companies here in Minnesota are so hungry for workers that they posted five job openings for every student in a new training program in industrial sewing, a full month before the training was even completed.

We are experiencing the same issue in the woodworking industry that also depends on finding highly skilled people. I’ll follow up with my thoughts in another post, but I’m curious about your reaction to this story.



  • Alan Dugan says:

    I understand completely. This constant talk of getting everyone a college education is overlooking the fact that not everyone needs a college education and a lot of people should not even get one. In the graduating class at a local public school( the top one in the district) 7 out of 9 who enrolled in a Cal State University school had to take remedial Math and English.
    The great “Middle Class” of America that politicians crow about was not made up of stock brokers and computer geeks,it was made up of hard working people who knew how to produce things of value and did. We need Trade Schools to teach not only work skills but also the pride of accomplishment in turning out a quality product.
    I started wood working as a freshman in high school in 1956. Now days I can’t find anyone to hire who knows a hammer from a saw.

  • Dennis says:

    The sad truth is a lot of the potential workforce would rather receive Government subsidies supplemented with a little cash work and now ACA insurance to working a full time job that they have to show up for five days a week. I know, they would tell you that they would rather have a full time job, but when comes right down to it, they choose the lesser compensated life style to working.
    Gotta go, have to work to pay the taxes to support those guys.

  • mike papola says:

    I’m in the north bay area of San Francisco and I have been posting jobs and looking for a skilled person for the last 3-4 months. I can’t even find someone to help run my CNC.

  • Chuck R says:

    It is true – just as your article suggests, David. We have plenty of people in this country but not plenty of workers. Who can blame them? They are on the government dole, and they live as well as they wish to live. All they have to do to earn their subsistence is to vote – and, no identification needed. They do not, however, make or buy custom made furniture…

  • Dave Sochar says:

    Something fishy is going on. Every employer is crying for good help, and yet we have more experienced workers that have been long term unemployed than ever. It does not add up. Could it be that we are being manipulated?

    Granted, the for profit – we-will-loan-you-all-you-need – education industry is doing its part to make manufacturing undesirable The computer and health fields are positioned to attract every young person with the promise of huge salaries.

    Could it be that unemployment and bedevilment of unions has driven wages so low that no one will choose work? The workers are there, are they not? Experienced, older people that know how to work and are willing to work – need to work – they are there. So it must be that the employer bargain hunting that is always rampant at high unemployment cycles means that wages are so low that people just can not accept them.

    I suspect that those employers crying for workers are really using the voice of the press to call for workers much like the meat packers did in the 20’s. With 3-5 people for every opening, it is easy to sit back and watch these people cut their own throats.

    This seems to be a recurring theme – the 20’s, now across the manufacturing board, and recently in the cabinet industry as we could watch shops all cut their own throats on pricing, before they went out altogether.

  • Jerry Finch says:

    The shortage of skilled workers has been the number one problem in the woodworking industry for decades. Some of us have been trying to do something about it. I was on the Board of WoodLINKS USA for 10 years and then Woodwork Careet Aliance (WCA) for another 10. These 2 organizations, now combined, have been heavily supported by AWI, AWFS, WMMA, WMIA, IWF and others. The trade press (W&WP, FDM, Woodshop News) has also been a great supporter of these efforts. WCA also partners with Skills USA to showcase the best young woodworkers. More than 50 high schools and technical colleges across the US are affiliated and many have industry partners to help them turn out the best trained young people for the industry. WoodLINKS in Canada is doing the same. Woodworking companies looking to survive in the future should find the nearest school affiliated with WCA or WoodLINKS and join the effort.

  • Doug says:

    I have the same issues. People will call or walk in from time to time asking for work. When I tell them we build one-off custom furniture and built-in furniture and we don’t use nail guns or screws in our shop I just get blank stares.

  • Tom Karaffa says:

    What was the actual pay. Was it full time work? Any benefits? Remember it has to be more lucritave than being on the gov. dole

  • Alan Blough says:

    We are reaping the benefits of what was sown a number of years ago when the educational system shifted from having a well-rounded education including hands-on skills such as shop class and home economics in favor of a higher-education based system.

  • Lang Naefke says:

    That is the biggest problem I have out here in San Diego. I have to turn down so much work out here because I can’t get anyone with skills or a strong work ethic.. What happen???? No one wants to work because it’s easier to collect unemployment and all the extensions behind it… I have people actually doing the math to see if it’s better to work or sit on there butts. It’s a sad time and so much work out there….. So now I decided to start training people from the ground up which is great. but it does not meet the demand..

  • Mark Slafkes says:

    The world is changing. When this owner figures out that placing ads in the paper is not the way to attract workers, he/she may find that there are more people out there than he/she imagined. Also, if this person was willing to be more creative in looking for workers, they would be more easily found.
    Lesson: Don’t use the methods of 20-40 years ago to do many aspects of your business. It was a huge change for me when I stopped advertising for my apartments in the papers and started using craigslist.
    This owner could also advocate for more training in local high schools, could be looking in stores that sell sewing supplies, could be going to community centers that serve communities that include lots of seamstresses.
    So, the big, big message is that the owner of this factor doesn’t know how to recruit workers and doesn’t know how to shape the work day to fit the needs of these workers.
    It’s so easy to make simple comments about “no workers to be found.” Not a very smart comment, IMHO.

  • Jim says:

    We find the same issue. Unemployment at 7+ percent and nobody to hire. I talk to woodworking manufacturers all over the country and they say the same thing. And the few people I talk to in other industries say the same thing.
    Back in the day with 5% unemployment we’d get hundreds of apps for a few openings.
    Now it’s easier to stay home and collect what the government will hand out.
    It’s a messed up world out there right now. I’m confident things will come around, but how long will it take?
    Mike Roe is right on target – Fundementally Disconnected.

  • Jon Walpole says:

    Looks like you hit a nerve with this one!

  • Tom E. says:

    I teach high school tech-ed, drafting, architecture etc and can tell you that high schools across my state(Virginia) are having to cut construction and manufacturing programs due to budgetary reasons. The school is faced with stagnant or decreasing budgets and need to sqeeze as many students per class as allowable by law. Virginia, and I’m sure most states, limit the enrollment to 20 students for many vocational classes for safety purposes. Principals can no longer afford these low ratio classes and would rather have 30-35 students per class. In order for vocational classes to survive, there needs to be outside pressure and financial support from industry.

  • Jim Allen says:

    I admit I am late to the table with this e-mail, but as a single person wantabe business I do not have a lot of spare time. What is missing in the above discussions is ‘What are the going wages for these jobs.’ In today’s world I do not know of anyone who can survive on the Minimum Wage. And then everyone wants to point a finger that these same working poor are on the government dole. Everyone I know would like to work full time, be respected for their efforts and earn a living wage.
    Somehow the 1%’ers of this country have lost that idea, and want everyone to work for nothing, or be labeled lazy good for nothing’s!
    Hello, Anybody listening?

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