Blue collar hiring: Not so blue
Experts say that many manufacturers are hiring workers despite headlines about big auto layoffs, trade gap.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - The headlines suggest anyone wearing a blue collar is about to take it in the neck.
The trade gap continues to set records as Americans gobble up an ever-growing pile of goods made more cheaply in China and other developing countries.
It would seem like a "help wanted" sign in a factory is as much a thing of the past as 50-cent gasoline, 25-cent pizza or black and white televisions.
But experts say that the outlook for hiring in manufacturing isn't nearly as bleak as the recent headlines would suggest.
Despite the growth in imports, there are still powerful incentives to keep some manufacturing here, close to the world's largest consumer market in a just-in-time delivery world.
That's part of the reason Asian and European automakers have been building so many U.S. plants -- to serve growing demand from U.S. consumers for their products.
Several experts say that the steep decline in the nation's manufacturing base in earlier decades is probably behind us, that the remaining jobs are more competitive and productive, and thus more secure.
"We might still be seeing some small declines in manufacturing overall, but even that's a mix," said Ken Goldstein, labor economist at the Conference Board, a business research group. "This year you'll see more hiring in nondurable manufacturing sectors such as in chemicals, in rubber, in plastics, in paper."
Domestic employment in industries like autos and apparel are still declining, he said.
Goldstein's not making predictions about the February employment numbers, which are due out Friday, and which economists are forecasting will show continued strength.
Economists are forecasting payrolls grew by 210,000 jobs last month, and that the unemployment rate held steady at 4.7 percent, according to Briefing.com. Forecasts from economists surveyed by Reuters range from a net gain of 100,000 to 280,000 jobs.
But government statistics like the payroll number disguise the amount of hiring in manufacturing, labor experts said, because the typical manufacturer has an older work force closer to retirement than the U.S. work force as a whole.
More than 1 in 5 manufacturers to add jobs
The strength of the U.S. economy overall should help support manufacturing jobs, according to Norbert Ore, chair of the Institute for Supply Management's committee that conducts a monthly survey of manufacturing executives.
The group's survey shows orders have been strong and for most of the last year manufacturers have been looking to add more jobs, not trim staff.
"I think we're at that point in the cycle we would typically expect to see relatively strong job creation in manufacturing," he said. "Investment is taking place, profitability is fairly good."
The most recent survey found that 22 percent of manufacturing executives are planning to add jobs, and another 65 percent plan to keep staffing at current levels.
The Conference Board's Goldstein said that despite the pressure of lower wages overseas, modern U.S. manufacturing jobs still have very good pay and benefits.
Still, a survey by the National Association of Manufacturers and Deloitte Consulting last fall found that more than half of manufacturers reported that 10 percent or more of their positions are empty for lack of the right candidates. In addition, 81 percent face "moderate" or "severe" shortages of qualified workers that constrain output.
"It's a smaller but far more highly skilled work force today," said Goldstein. "They're very difficult jobs to fill. They take a high degree of skills that need to be further refined on the job.
"They're not available to high school dropouts the way they once were," he added. "But if you've had some college or some technical school training, there are jobs out there for you and some are very highly paid jobs."
Some manufacturers are turning to headhunters to fill blue collar jobs, something typically used to fill management jobs.
"I'm not going to call it robust but we're seeing manufacturing hiring across the board," said Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing at Yoh, a job recruiting firm. "We have a unit that focuses on the blue collar side and it's been on a roll for three or four years now."
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