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Where have all the skilled workers gone?

Zachary Roth
Senior National Affairs Reporter
The Lookout

Despite the recent uptick in employment, there are currently around 4.7 unemployed workers for every job opening. So you wouldn't think it would be hard for employers to find the workers they need. But that's not always the case.

Many manufacturing companies say they're having trouble finding workers with the specialized skills they're looking for. "There is definitely a shortage of people who are very capable to make the factories run," Jeff Owens, the president of ATS, a manufacturing consulting firm, tells CNNMoney.com.

Why the shortage? Many of the people who were laid off from factory jobs and are looking for work don't have the specialized skills companies are looking for, manufacturing execs say.  And they're not eager to acquire them, because, having been laid off from one manufacturing job, they're convinced that the whole sector is on the decline. So they don't want to spend time retraining for jobs that they fear could soon be shipped overseas.

Some say those fears are misplaced, arguing that skilled manufacturing jobs are difficult to outsource. But the numbers tell a different story. As we've reported, middle-wage, middle-skill jobs -- a category that includes both skilled manufacturing jobs and white-collar clerical work -- are shrinking rapidly as a percentage of total U.S. jobs, thanks to the effects of offshoring and mechanization. So it may make sense for a worker to decide against spending a year retraining himself to learn these skills.

That still leaves some manufacturing firms with a shortage of qualified labor, though -- a problem that will likely only get worse given the advanced age of many skilled workers. ATS predicts that within five years, nearly twice as many manufacturers as today could be facing a high number of job openings for which they can't find skilled workers.

(A Boeing Co. employee works on a wing of a Boeing 767 airplane at Boeing Co.'s 767 assembly plant, in Everett, Wash., Feb. 25, 2011. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

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