Consider, for instance, the job of a machinist. True, the basic job function hasn't changed: machinists produce precision metal parts. But the drills, lathes and mills and other tools they use on the modern factory floor are almost always computer numerically controlled -- CNC for short -- and only as precise as the instructions provided by their operators.
As a result, machinists today not only need to be able to write basic computer programs -- they're expected to be able to troubleshoot those programs, and rewrite them if necessary, if they encounter problems during production.
No section of the country has been more buffeted by the changes sweeping U.S. manufacturing than the Midwest, home to the largest concentration of factories making everything from passenger cars and commercial trucks to construction equipment and food products.
The irony is that as the sector's profit rebounds, employers here complain they can't find enough qualified workers -- despite the millions of former manufacturing workers desperate for a job. The problem, Crocker said, is the gap between the legacy skills most unemployed manufacturing workers have and the skills employers are looking for.
To help bridge that cap, groups like the National Association of Manufacturers are working with community colleges around the country to develop programs to give workers the skills and certifications employers want today.
Thus, it is not just a general education that matters--that must be layered with specific technical skills that manufacturers are looking for. And, of course, global competition in the labor market means that businesses are not always interested in hiring US workers.
First, the embrace of lean manufacturing techniques and investment in labor-saving technology -- both of which continued despite the slump -- means the industry does not need as many workers here as it did in the past. As Doug Oberhelman, the new chief executive of Caterpillar, told investors in New York this summer, "we will do more for less."
Second, when manufacturers decide they do need workers, they don't always need them here. Caterpillar, for instance, says it hopes to rehire a total of 9,000 workers before year's end. But only a third of the promised jobs will be inside the United States as the company continues to align its manufacturing footprint and headcount with its sales, 62 percent of which now come from overseas.