Managers of some manufacturing plants have been making a claim that seems to defy logic. Yet there's every reason to think they're telling...

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Managers of some manufacturing plants have been making a claim that seems to defy logic. Yet there’s every reason to think they’re telling the truth.

They say they’re having trouble finding skilled workers. The problem is hindering their businesses.

But hold on. Haven’t industrial jobs been swirling down an open drain for years as plants close or move? Wouldn’t it seem there should be experienced out-of-work machinists, welders and assembly personnel eager to snap up available jobs?

The answers: yes and yes. But changes in manufacturing have reshaped factory protocols and job descriptions worldwide in recent decades. The process has shaken up plants from China to Japan to Ohio.

The Cleveland region echoes with the sound of employees punching out from factories for the last time, with years, even decades, of experience. Still, plant managers say they confront a shortage of qualified workers.

Ron Rasmus swears it’s true. “I’ve got tug boats to build and I can’t hire enough qualified welders and diesel mechanics,” said the chief executive of Great Lakes Towing, whose shipyard is on Cleveland’s near West Side.

Workers started last spring to build the company’s first midsize tugs — 74 feet long, 30 feet wide. Now, one floats nearly finished, and a second is taking shape.

The 110-year-old company leased more space to build the steel barges it ships to buyers from the Pacific Northwest to New York harbor, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast. Rasmus said only his too-small work force holds him back.

He is not alone. “Hiring good people is one of my greatest challenges,” said Gary Gibb, president of Wrayco Industries, an expanding metal-fabrication business in Stow, Ohio.

There are two reasons, said Judith Crocker, director of education and training at the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (Magnet), a Cleveland nonprofit that supports manufacturing through education and various services.

Even after a century of manufacturing focus and higher-than-average salaries, the region suffers an imbalance between available skills and the personnel needs of growing enterprises.

Many out-of-work trades people don’t fit into today’s technology-intensive factories.

Until recently, there hasn’t been effective communication between skilled and eager job seekers and managers of the shops, assembly plants and factories that need workers.

Magnet provides workshops and seminars aimed at refining the skills of managers and workers so they can achieve the standards of today’s advanced manufacturing practices.

It also launched a Web site this year,, intended to pair metal benders, welders, machinists and assembly workers, as well as office workers, accountants, marketing and IT specialists and managers with companies that need their skills.

Magnet’s data show it’s catching on, with almost 5,000 job seekers and more than 400 registered employers offering jobs.

But Crocker said the trades many workers learned a decade or more ago, even with years of on-the-job practice, didn’t prepare them for what factories need today.

“Jobs become obsolete. That’s what happens. Workers who haven’t taken advantage of seminars and training programs in advanced manufacturing but kept with the same, say, welding or machining skills they learned in the past might not find jobs today,” she said.

Following a recent $30 million expansion and with annual sales approaching $50 million, Wrayco is always looking to expand its 300-employee work force.

But on a recent walk through his vast factory, Gibb said, “Just being an experienced welder or machinist or metal shaper isn’t enough.”

Like many other bosses, he wants employees skilled in or ready to tackle computer-assisted manufacturing, comfortable with changing technology and ready to operate in work cells, where each member masters a range of production tasks.

“A lot of workers who have been in manufacturing for a while around here aren’t so flexible,” Gibb said.

At Great Lakes Towing, Rasmus, too, has great plans to expand his shipyard, providing dry-dock repair services for marine craft all across the Great Lakes and churning out midsize tugs to meet an exploding market.

He, like Gibb, wants flexible workers and promises “a terrific salary, great benefits and real career opportunities.”