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Commentary: For some, factory jobs can be a good career

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The United States has shed 2 million factory jobs since 2007, yet many American companies can't find qualified workers to fill their available openings. That's a shocking problem, given the numbers looking for work. But it could also be a break for blue-collar Americans willing to engage their brains. For them, there is a road from unemployment to a good living, and it may go through a local community college.

While fewer Americans work in factories, U.S. factories still make lots of stuff. Many have computerized their operations to shrink the advantage of competitors in low-wage countries. They still need people to operate the computers and will pay them handsomely. But applicants with the proper skills aren't showing up at their door. Ben Venue Laboratories makes drugs for pharmaceutical companies in the Cleveland suburb of Bedford, Ohio. It had 100 openings for jobs paying about $31,000 a year. Some 3,600 people applied for the jobs, but the company could hire only 47 of them. What was Ben Venue requiring in education? The ability to read and do math at a ninth-grade level.

John Gajewski, executive director of the Cuyahoga Community College, works with Ben Venue and other local manufacturers to match needed skills with interested workers. My question: How do you get those lacking a ninth-grade education up to speed for such employment? "Let's pretend that someone's dropped out of high school," he responds. "They're working at low-income jobs, and they've got to the point where they know they need advanced training to make a good wage."

The first thing: Get a high-school equivalency degree. Courses leading to the degree can be found most everywhere and often at no cost. Cuyahoga Community College offers them.

With the degree in hand, the person can move into a short-term program at the college that lasts three to six months. It provides the technical training required by local industry and teaches "employability" skills -- the ability to work in teams and show motivation to do the work. "Those individuals can then move from fast food to a company job," Gajewski adds. "They may have just doubled their earnings and now get benefits. They are now part of a company with which they may have upward career momentum."

The psychological benefits can be enormous, as well. The students see that they can be successful in a college environment. They may go on to pursue an associate's degree in engineering. They may eventually go for a bachelor's degree.

Cuyahoga Community College has an apprenticeship program for tool and die makers. The apprentice is employed full time by a company, then comes to class after work. That's 2,000 hours a year on the job, plus 144 hours in continuing education, done on the worker's own time. And here's where the road gets rough for the lazy or unmotivated. Does he or she have the discipline and dedication to work today for rewards tomorrow? The new world of American manufacturing is not a comfy place for low-skilled workers who want to spend all day gluing two parts together. But for those who apply themselves, Gajewski sees a bright future in manufacturing. By 2016, about 30 percent of the manufacturing workforce in Ohio will be ready for retirement. This means many positions should open for children now in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. It's important for them to see manufacturing not as a dead-end, dead-brain job, but as an attractive career for educated, creative people.

And for those who've already dropped out, community colleges show the way back in. That's a great thing about America: Many of those who strike out in life can get another chance at bat.

Froma Harrop's e-mail address is fharrop@wctrib.com.

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