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The economy is picking up, and employers are starting to hire again after a long employment drought. But many are still moving cautiously on the hiring front, concerned that the risks of bringing back workers may outweigh the benefits of a fully staffed workforce.

The Search for Skilled Workers

  • 9/6/2012

The economy is picking up, and employers are starting to hire again after a long employment drought. But many are still moving cautiously on the hiring front, concerned that the risks of bringing back workers may outweigh the benefits of a fully staffed workforce.

Some employers who are ready to hire are facing another unexpected struggle: finding qualified workers. In the lean recession years, employers that survived learned to streamline their operations. In many cases, running a lean shop meant learning to use complicated technology that replaced human workers. As product demand increases, new hires must be comfortable with learning new technology. Workers who can’t adapt to the changes will not thrive if hired, and may become a drain on company resources.

The new jobs require workers with experience completing more than one task at a time. In the manufacturing sector, workers with “outdated” skills may actually slow the production process, leaving an employer behind on orders — and disappointing customers. Bringing workers up to speed costs time and money.

“In the industry I work in, most of our members are reporting that they are extremely busy,” says Jim Grosmann, director of marketing for the Independence, Ohio-based National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA). “There are pockets where some smaller members are still struggling, but the ones that look at the big picture are doing very well right now. For my members, the biggest struggle is finding skilled workers.”

The workload is getting so high that employers are starting to put their risk aversion aside and bring in workers, Grossman says. As a result, there are currently 600,000 manufacturing job openings nationwide, he explains: “In the metalworking sector alone, there are anywhere from 35,000 to 65,000 job openings going unfilled.”

To help narrow the gap between employers and qualified employees, the NTMA is working with community colleges and training centers to set up programs to train workers to succeed in the new world of manufacturing.

All of these new jobs might not be spread evenly across the country, cautions Ernie Goss, the Jack MacAllister Chair in Regional Economics at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. In order to get the best jobs, skilled workers must be willing to go where the jobs are.

“This is a reality of our changing economy,” Goss says. “Workers are going to have to learn to be flexible geographically. The idea that you may be able to find another job in Wayne, Nebraska, when your job leaves Wayne won’t work anymore. Workers will have to relocate to find the best jobs, and employers will need to encourage them to move.”

Mike Mittler, CEO and founder of Mittler Bros. Machine and Tool, a precision design and manufacturing firm based in Wright City, Missouri, has heard much about the shortage of skilled workers in his industry. So far, that hasn’t been the case for him.

Lately Mittler has taken a new approach to the hiring process. “One thing we’ve been doing is finding promising young people and ‘bootstrapping’ them,” he says. Mittler believes that hiring employees with potential and training them in the specific skills his company needs helps reduce risk. “This means we decide they have promise and give them an opportunity. We put them at the bottom of the company and help them develop skills on the job. Another way we’ve been finding good people is by getting out there and letting folks know that it is more attractive to work at Mittler Bros. than it is to work somewhere else. In some sense it is piracy, I guess. But after being around 30 years, we have a good reputation. Good people want to come work for us, and that’s how we survive.” — Andy Steiner