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Skilled jobs go begging in manufacturing

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Michael W. Lamach, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Ingersoll Rand

Davidson, N.C.'s largest employer has a problem.

Many know the products Ingersoll Rand makes, such as Trane air conditioners and Club Car golf carts, even if they don't know the parent company's name. The Irish conglomerate with its North American headquarters in Davidson has grown to about 2,000 local employees since planting its roots in the town in the mid-1970s.

The problem is the company has about 1,000 open jobs it's having trouble filling.

The main cause of that is the skills gap, CEO Michael Lamach said in an interview. The term refers to a shortage of workers with the necessary technical skills to handle machinery, perform service on the equipment and use advanced technology, among other things.

It's a perplexing thing, too, because the jobs often are high-paying and usually don't require college degrees, Lamach said. Commercial technicians at Ingersoll Rand, for example, can make up to $105,000 per year without having attended a four-year university.

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"Most parents, I think, will coach their kids to go to college, and in doing so, are not thinking about some of the vocational areas," he said.

Filling the pipeline with fresh young talent is a task he and hundreds of other manufacturing leaders around the U.S. are prioritizing through community outreach, recruitment in science, technology, engineering and math programs and efforts to create enjoyable workplaces for employees.

Labor shortages are a problem anywhere the economy is growing, said Mark Vitner, Charlotte, N.C.-based economist for Wells Fargo. It's a particularly acute problem in construction and in manufacturing.

Ingersoll Rand considers itself something of a manufacturing mainstay: It makes large equipment that's expensive to transport, and it employs thousands of technicians whose job includes servicing and diagnosing that equipment.

The company — which has posted $10.6 billion in revenue through the first nine months of 2017, up 4 percent from last year — therefore sells most of what it makes where it makes it, a philosophy known as lean manufacturing. "It's all about getting supply chains to be shorter and to get response times to be faster," Lamach said.

All of that means automation hasn't taken the place of many Ingersoll Rand jobs as it has for some of the company's competitors.

Manufacturing once was considered the economic lifeblood of North Carolina. But employment has dwindled through the years as work moved overseas and technology made operations more efficient.

The industry's image also has hurt recruitment efforts, Vitner said. "You think of all the dirty blue-collar jobs that used to exist," he said. "Changing that reputation is hard."

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Lamach dismissed the idea that legislation or a change in policy could bring back the thousands of jobs the manufacturing industry has lost through the years. Rather, he said, manufacturers must figure out how to embrace automation.

Automation will claim some U.S. jobs, he said, but some of those are roles people just don't want to do, Lamach said.

Advanced manufacturing "requires integration of software and hardware to make them work," he said. "When you do that, you're creating jobs that are going to last for a long time."

Lamach described one experiment with integration: An Ingersoll Rand technician with 40 years of experience uses a Google Glass to manage multiple virtual service calls with less experienced technicians in the field.

As the field technician is looking at the equipment, the more experienced worker is taking in the scene virtually to help diagnose the problem, Lamach said. It's a mental challenge for seasoned workers without the physical work that could be hard on their bodies.

"Using technology … is a great way of transferring knowledge to help bootstrap people who don't have the experience," Lamach said.

Retaining good talent is as equally important for Ingersoll Rand as recruiting in local high schools and community colleges.

Keeping workers happy not only means providing competitive pay but also creating a workplace in which employees feel engaged, Lamach said, citing Ingersoll Rand's sustainability efforts and ethics in particular.

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For example, Ingersoll Rand has started manufacturing its air conditioners to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Lamach said it is the responsibility of corporations to commit to ameliorating climate change and other problems especially in today's uncertain political climate.

"If you had that in five to six key industries (doing the same), you could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the world dramatically by 2030," Lamach said.

Lamach is among the two dozen leaders that make up the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, which supported compromise legislation to repeal HB2, North Carolina's controversial law that limited legal protections for LGBT people.

The repeal was a step in the right direction, Lamach said, but there still needs to be a more "affirmative policy that's more progressive" on LGBT rights.

"It has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with values and people. Why are we creating more pain?" he said.

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