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US companies woo workers to rural areas

New York

THEY call it the "Not So Heavy Metal" tour. It is a lighthearted effort by Minnesota-based Alexandria Industries to introduce middle and high school students - as well as the public - to manufacturing.

While the name is humorous, it belies an issue that is anything but. The component manufacturing company, with about 550 employees roughly two hours north of the Twin Cities of St Paul and Minneapolis, faces an acute problem affecting many rural manufacturers: a shortage of workers to fill skilled and unskilled positions.

The company, which supplies manufacturers in the medical, car and defence industries, among others, has at least 50 unfilled jobs, and its predicament is not unusual. "It doesn't matter whether the company is in Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas or Pennsylvania," said Tom Schabel, chief executive of Alexandria Industries. "One of the top issues is the difficulty of finding people."

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Skilled positions can remain open for months, and even unskilled positions can take 60 days to fill, he said. Shortages may seem counterintuitive, given the widespread fear that automation, robotics and offshoring have all reduced employment in manufacturing.

While jobs in absolute numbers have declined from a decade ago, the sustained economic recovery, a lack of skilled workers and the retirement of many baby boomers have led to open positions. Even though the gyrating tariff environment is causing anxiety across industries, manufacturers are still hiring. But up to 2.4 million skilled jobs could go unfilled by 2028, according to a report released in November by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, a non-profit affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers. As a result, the previously unthinkable has begun to happen: A third of companies surveyed by the Manufacturing Institute reported that they had already turned away new work because of a lack of manpower, according to Carolyn Lee, the group's executive director.

To address the shortages, manufacturers, as well as state and local governments, are increasing recruiting efforts. Although no statistics are available to analyse their effectiveness, these measures include higher wages, tax incentives for those relocating and the forgiveness of student loans, as well as enhanced training for students, new recruits and current employees.

Companies are also offering perks such as on-site day care and health care. Alexandria Industries, for example, offers a free health clinic within a block of its facility. "While it was initially an attempt to deal with escalating healthcare costs, it is increasing a recruiting and retention tool" for workers and their families, Mr Schabel said. NYTIMES