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ARCHIVED  November 1, 1997

Skilled work force can’t keep pace with manufacturers

FORT COLLINS — Most manufacturers along the Northern Front Range of Colorado and Wyoming say one of the region˜s advantages is its high-quality, well-trained, productive work force.
The problem is there aren˜t always enough of those high-quality workers to go around.
Finding the right people to help produce products in the increasingly high-tech world of manufacturing sometimes can be a daunting prospect, particularly in a manufacturing sector that is dominated by high-tech companies and is growing. Manufacturers up and down the Northern Front Range and Southeast Wyoming say the labor squeeze is one of their most pressing problems, and some even complain about a lack of workers with basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic.
"The problem is the economy has been so strong here, and the work force just hasn˜t kept up," said Dave Carson, president and CEO of CBW Automation in Fort Collins and co-chair of the Northern Colorado Manufacturers Council. Carson believes the overall excellence of Front Range workers is one of the area˜s primary advantages, yet he sees the labor shortage worsening.
"And it isn˜t just confined to manufacturers or primary employers," Carson told The Northern Colorado Business Report. "Throughout the Front Range, all employers are having more and more trouble finding the numbers of good employees they need."
Roland Mower, president of the Fort Collins Economic Development Corp., said concern about the labor squeeze is particularly strong in Front Range manufacturers who are looking to expand. "And that goes across the board, from very large employers to very small employers," he said.
Anecdotal evidence abounds, from Advanced Energy Industries Inc.˜s since-scrapped plan to bus in workers from Denver and Cheyenne to a bull market for prized workers who can command bidding wars for their services. From Anheuser Busch Cos. Inc. to Symbios Logic Inc., employers are competing for everything from skilled technical workers to entry-level positions.
Chronic labor shortages in some skills and shifting shortages in others have prompted the economic-development officers of Fort Collins, Greeley, Loveland and Longmont to commission a labor force study that will attempt to pinpoint areas of supply and demand now and five years into the future, and they plan to work with both schools and employers in helping meet demands. Carson˜s business — manufacturing automated robotics such as customized injection molding machines — requires a number of skilled workers, and he frequently has to advertise outside the region for skilled tradesmen and engineers.
"But our experience here is that the hot spots, the difficult jobs to fill, is a moving target," he said. "It tends to move with major expansions happening around us. When an Advanced Energy expands, that causes a temporary shortage of certain skills."
Ann Lang, a human-resources representative at Symbios Logic, noted that many of the people sought for engineering, electrical or computer positions are sought by many of the Northern Front Range˜s major employers.
"If we˜re talking about technical people, we˜re just moving people around … because there˜s not enough people, and we˜re needing more and more of those critical-skill people," Lang said. "There are not enough people to go around, that are ready to work."
According to Mower, finding entry-level people can be even harder than filling high-skill positions.
"Typically, the ones most difficult to fill tend to be entry-level positions within the manufacturing companies," he said. "It˜s all relative, but at the entry-level part of the spectrum, you find a tighter labor force. Clearly, there are shortages at the high end as well, but if you have a very high-level position, you˜re probably going to be recruiting either nationally or internationally, so it˜s a little different."
Labor statistics from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment show ebbs and flows in specific skills, trades and professions. For example, in the quarter ending this past June, Larimer and Weld counties had a significant undersupply of electrical engineers but an oversupply of mechanical engineers. Industrial cleaners were in oversupply; hospital cleaners were in short supply. Elementary and secondary school teachers were in oversupply; pre-school teachers and teacher aides were in demand.
Manufacturing skills in short supply as of last June included design technicians, manufacturing engineers, software engineers, computer programmers and analysts, network control operators, maintenance mechanics, bindery workers, and sheet-metal workers, according to the state labor statistics. Also in short supply were truck and van drivers, construction workers, day workers, yard workers and farm laborers, telephone solicitors and merchandise deliverers.
On the other hand, Larimer and Weld counties had an oversupply of mechanical drafters, quality-control technicians, database administrators and environmental analysts, as well as an oversupply in such nonmanufacturing professions as lawyers, accountants, bartenders and waitresses.
If the tremendous economic growth in Larimer and Weld counties is a factor in producing labor shortages, so also is the need for more skills in most manufacturing jobs. Northern Colorado˜s manufacturing industry generally bears little resemblance to the steel-belt heavy manufacturing found back east, and its leading employers — Hewlett-Packard Co., Eastman Kodak Co., Woodward Governor Co., Symbios Logic, Teledyne Water Pik and Hach Co. — reflect the high-tech nature of the manufacturing base.
"As long as you have companies of the quality nature that these are and that are growing, then you˜re going to run up against the problem finding those quality skilled-labor people," said Don Churchwell, executive director of the Loveland Economic Development Council."
Bill Argo, president of the Greeley/Weld Economic Development Action Partnership Inc., also noted that there are many people underemployed and plenty of people looking for work, but they don˜t always have the skills needed for today˜s manufacturing jobs. While praising the overall quality of Northern Colorado˜s work force, Argo said there are increasing complaints about lack of basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills in some prospective employees.
"Industry generally is becoming more automated, more computer-driven, and industry is looking for a different kind of employee," Argo said. "You˜ve got to hire employees who can think on their feet, that have good judgment, rather than just muscle-types for an assembly line."
Symbios Logic hasn˜t been hiring entry people recently, but Lang said there is a problem finding people with good work ethics, dependability and both hard and soft skills, such as "thinking on your own and being responsible. Critical thinking, I would say, is a lost art."
Not every Front Range employer is experiencing the labor squeeze, however. Eastman Kodak in Windsor, for example, has used a rigorous pre-employment screening process to make sure the 100 to 200 people it hires a year for mostly entry-level positions are qualified, said Dean Moore, director of human resources at Kodak.
"We haven˜t experienced any critical shortages, although the labor market is tighter than it is in other parts of the country, certainly," Moore said, adding that Kodak has been fortunate in a lack of attrition in many of its highest-skill positions. Kodak also works closely with Aims Community College in Greeley and uses its "Work Keys" program to help give existing employees skills they need for jobs with more responsibilities. The program is administered through Aims˜ continuing-education department, under the leadership of Dick Wood.
Community colleges throughout the area are attempting to respond to the labor shortages through both customized training programs and emphasis on possessing basic work skills. For example, Front Range Community College in Fort Collins offers a "boot camp" program for employees, while Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne guarantees its graduates will have basic skills.
But to manufacturers such as Carson, Northern Colorado˜s dynamic expanding economy will continue to put pressure on the area˜s labor force.
"As long as businesses along the Front Range are so successful that they˜re driven to expand, I suspect we˜re looking at needing just a quantity of people — not only the skill level but also the quantity," he said.

FORT COLLINS — Most manufacturers along the Northern Front Range of Colorado and Wyoming say one of the region˜s advantages is its high-quality, well-trained, productive work force.
The problem is there aren˜t always enough of those high-quality workers to go around.
Finding the right people to help produce products in the increasingly high-tech world of manufacturing sometimes can be a daunting prospect, particularly in a manufacturing sector that is dominated by high-tech companies and is growing. Manufacturers up and down the Northern Front Range and Southeast Wyoming say the labor squeeze is one of their most pressing problems,…

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