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JAMES FLANIGAN

No Lack of Jobs for Those With the Right Skills

December 09, 1987|JAMES FLANIGAN

The latest news on jobs in America was very good indeed. The Labor Department's figures for November showed that 274,000 people were hired, that total employment rose to 115 million and that unemployment, at 5.8%, was at an eight-year low.

But this year, less than two months after the stock market crash, the good news was received with only a nervous nod and much anxiety about the future. Will jobs be plentiful next year was the question, or will there be recession and rising unemployment?

Economists admit that they don't know for sure, but many are leaning against a verdict of recession. David Levine of the Sanford C. Bernstein research firm says the crash has created such uncertainty that the economy's true course won't be known until January. Nonetheless, Levine is predicting strong economic growth, accompanied by full employment and inflation. Merrill Lynch & Co. economist Douglas Cliggott, less bullish, sees no recession but a slowing economy and unemployment edging up to 6.4%.

What should you think? That rather than waiting to hear from economists, you'd learn more about job prospects by looking to where the employment is growing these days. And that would be the manufacturing sector, the long out of fashion factory economy associated with the industrial belt from Ohio and Michigan west to Missouri and Minnesota.

There you'd find good news. In Cleveland, Management Recruiters International, a firm that specializes in placing middle-management people, has just conducted a survey of the hiring intentions of 2,220 companies for the first half of 1988. And the results are anything but recessionary, says Alan Schonberg, founder and chairman of the recruiting firm. They show 35% of the companies planning to increase personnel, fewer than 12% planning to decrease employment and the rest intending to maintain present levels.

But if much of the country is fair, the 12-state region of the Midwest is bright, with companies planning to expand employment faster than the national average.

Lean and Mean

The Midwest today is more than a reassuring story of the Rust Bowl coming back. Its companies can set an example for the rest of American industry. Its new job patterns can be studied by youngsters preparing to enter the work force. The Midwest's companies are now efficient, and their presence in world markets is due to more than the falling dollar. They will be players in world markets for a long time, and their employment needs will set a tone for years to come, as financial services have done for recent years.

That means rising demand for mechanical and electrical engineers. If you go to business school, you'd be smarter to study production techniques rather than finance. And if you don't go to college, you can still get a good job but you must learn the skills of computer-aided design and computer-integrated manufacturing.

A good example is Nordson Corp., a Cleveland-based maker of packaging machinery--the kind of machines that help other companies make the plastic wrap and blister packs you see in the supermarket. Nordson, which gets about half of its $200-million sales overseas, has been adding people steadily for the last year and a half as business has picked up.

But Midwestern factories are no longer a cast of thousands. The new efficiency means fewer assembly line workers are hired per dollar of increased output. But there is a big demand, says Madar, for engineers and applications people--skilled draftspeople who are familiar with computer-aided design.

Another aspect of the new manufacturing is reported at Parker Hannifin Corp., the $2-billion (revenue) Cleveland-based company that is the world's leading supplier of valves and fluid power systems for the automobile, aerospace and other industries. Where the addition of a $600,000 piece of equipment once meant hiring three people--one for each shift--to run it, now the equipment practically runs itself with monitoring by a single worker who also is tending other machines.

Oh? So is the result mass unemployment and ghost towns in the Midwest? No, the result is growing demand for skilled factory hands who can handle the new machinery. They need to know mathematics, and to have basic mechanical knowledge, says Parker Hannifin Vice President Richard Ferrell--skills Parker and other firms teach their employees because the public schools do not. And that in turn leads to fierce demand for capable factory managers.

What's the outlook for jobs in America? Opportunity aplenty, for a skilled work force.

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