Subscribe for 99¢

Tim Laciny pointed at a couple of idle machines on the big shop floor at Laciny Brothers in University City.

“I have work and machines — and nobody to run them,” Laciny said. “Probably my biggest problem is finding machinists.”

Manufacturing employment is down just 1.3 percent in metro St. Louis in the year ending in November. But that disguises a serious shortage of workers in highly skilled factory trades.

“It’s a problem today, and it will be a bigger problem going forward because of the graying of the workforce,” says Sally Safranski, chapter executive in St. Louis for the National Tooling and Machining Association.

Factories around St. Louis can find plenty of people for grunt jobs — lifting boxes, sorting parts and such. They have a much tough time finding hands-on machinists, computer numerical control, or CNC, machine operators, toolmakers, industrial electricians, multi-skilled maintenance mechanics and other jobs that require math talent and a couple of years of schooling.

A recent national survey of association members found that 90 percent have moderate or serious trouble finding qualified employees.

So, jobs paying $20, $25 and sometimes $40 an hour are going unfilled.

The St. Louis region’s 4.3 percent unemployment rate — a 15-year low — is part of the reason. But manufacturing executives complain that young people just aren’t training for the work.

It seems that factory work has an image problem.

Laciny’s shop floor is a busy place. About 34 people work designing and making specialized machinery and parts. All pretzels made at Gus’ Pretzels come out of a machine built by Laciny. A pint poured in a St. Louis brewpub may have passed through a Laciny device. He’s now making fermenters for the giant Gallo winery in California.

On the shop floor, Tim Laciny holds up a long, shiny metal arm with a hand rest at the end. It’s part of a special device to help a handicapped woman in Clayton move from a wheelchair to shower.

“We don’t have a product line. We are job to job, and we never know when the next job is coming in,” Laciny said. “I don’t sell products. I sell talent.”

So, he needs talented machinists who can craft odd metal and plastic parts. They are very hard to hire.

“I have tried everything — trade schools, hiring from high school, headhunters.” He runs a perpetual help-wanted ad.

He’s picked new high school graduates, hoping to train them, but often found they lack basic skills. “It’s basically all math and hard labor. I have had kids that make the effort, but they don’t have the brain power.”

So, he finds himself having to farm out some work that he’d rather do in-house.

“I had a machinist that left for Ameren, and he was making six figures,” Laciny said. “Once they become great, they want more money.”

Around St. Louis, the median wage for a machinist is $22 per hour, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wages are rising at 3 to 5 percent a year for skilled workers at Homeyer Precision Manufacturing in Marthasville, where a top toolmaker can earn $80,000 to $100,000 a year. “We’ve had to entice them with better insurance, retirement plans, vacation days,” says Herb Homeyer, company president and chairman of the National Tooling and Machining Association.

A 2015 study by the Deloitte consulting firm estimates that nearly 3.5 million factory jobs will open before 2025, mainly as boomers retire. Two million of those jobs won’t be filled because of the skills gap, says Deloitte.

“There is a lot of gray hair in my shop,” notes Mark Bockerstett, president of Modern Screw Products in St. Louis.

Part of the problem is that factory work has changed. Machinists, for instance, need programming skills, as well as knowing how to run a lathe.

The skill requirements are especially high in precision manufacturing. Homeyer, for instance, makes parts for lasers. “You take one piece of hair, split it 1,000 times, and that’s the tolerance we have,” Homeyer said.

Schools such as Ranken Technical College and Southwestern Illinois College run two-year associate’s courses in hands-on factory trades. “My guys hire them in the first year of the program at Ranken, because by the second year they’ve already been hired,” Safranski said.

Employers including Hydromat and True Manufacturing teamed with Ranken to start apprenticeship programs combining classes with on-the-job training. “They can grow their own machinists,” said Dan Kania, dean of academic affairs at Ranken.

They might start at $10 to $12 an hour while training, and make $28 to $30 as a journeyman five years after graduating.

The school also signed on with auto parts maker TG Missouri in Perryville, to train “multi-craft” mechanics capable of fixing many different machine types.

Bockerstett toured machine shops in Switzerland, and found that every one had a section set aside to train apprentices. America is far behind in that, he said, and it would be hard for a smaller shop to do alone.

But an apprentice program won’t work unless smart young people want to be apprentices. That’s a problem, people in the business say.

While factory work has changed, its gritty image is stuck in the 1950s, and employers think that discourages young people from signing up. “People think that what we do is dark, dirty and dangerous. At one point, manufacturing was that, but it’s changed,” Bockerstett says.

Factory executives also battle the perception that their business is moving to China. Manufacturing employment has been sinking slowly for decades. St. Louis had 190,000 factory jobs in 1990. It had 111,000 last December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some of that decline is due to foreign competition, but much is also due to automation and computerized manufacturing. That eliminates jobs that require brawn, while maintaining a need for brains.

Public schools, meanwhile, are judged by test scores and the percent of students they send to college. Guidance counselors aren’t likely to push young people toward the plant gates.

Tim Laciny represents the fourth generation of his family to run his shop, founded by three immigrant brothers in 1916.

The business survived the Great Depression and the Great Recession. Laciny took over in 2009, when his father, Bob, died unexpectedly at age 56. “I was 29. It was the middle of a recession, and I just had my first kid,” Tim Laciny says.

The financial system was teetering on collapse, and business was shrinking fast.

He found himself scraping to bring in $1,000 metal-bending jobs. “It was a tough time. We swept a lot. We painted everything we could paint in the shop to keep the people employed.”

Now he has the opposite problem — work to do and not enough workers. His new problem is better than the old one.

Editors note:  This story was changed to correct the age of Bob Laciny and to remove figures on wages at Laciny Brothers, which the company said were inaccurate.