Many manufacturing businesses in north St. Louis are up and running long before most of the city wakes up.
Mark Bockerstett arrives at Modern Screw Products Co. Inc. in the wee hours to open up the shop for the day.
"It's a family business," said Bockerstett. "I have two brothers that work here, along with myself."
Their dad still comes in every day too, nearly 95 years after Allen Bockerstett's father-in-law Fred Hackman founded the business.
The men still work out of the same office, but the machines in the back look very different than the ones Fred would recognize. They have transitioned from mechanical driven to computer numerical control.
"I believe we are in the midst of an industrial revolution. Another industrial revolution with everything becoming digitized and connected to the internet. All these machines are connected to the internet. I have cameras I can look down and see what they are doing at night. It’s changed. It’s not the way it used to be," said Mark Bockerstett.
Bockerstett is working to show the younger generation just how different the industry is now because the future of these jobs may depend on it.
"Finding workers to replace people like me who are in their 40s and 50s is the biggest challenge for all of us," said Bockerstett. "It's been difficult. It seems like there’s no one steering the kids toward this type of work. I guess they all want to do apps and games and things of that nature."
Manufacturing businesses around the country are finding themselves in the same boat. A 2015 Deloitte study predicted that nearly 3.5 million factory jobs will open by 2025, but as many as 2 million will not be filled because of a lack of skilled workers.
Companies are already having trouble hiring now. A recent National Tooling and Machining Association and Precision Metalforming Association members survey shows three-quarters of metalworking manufacturers have job openings, but 90 percent of them are having serious or moderate challenges recruiting qualified employees.
"If we don’t have workers coming up behind us, these machines are going to go quiet because there’s nobody to run them," said Bockerstett.
Right now, the industry in St. Louis is strong. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 259,000 Missourians work in manufacturing, including more than 111,000 people in St. Louis. But the hiring dilemma could become more dire in coming years with a push to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.A. because without skilled workers ready to fill the orders, the job openings won't help.
"There was a definite decline after 2000 through 2010 where manufacturing was going off shore. I think American manufacturers who were using that tactic found it’s not all great to have that cheap price. You have long lead times, less quality, and communication issues. I have several customers that are bringing it back now. So we have to be poised with new workers but if we get the work back and have no workers, we are kind of stuck. It’s not going to be good," said Bockerstett.
Bockerstett is also the local chapter president of the National Tooling and Machining Association. The organization gives away $12,000 in scholarships annually but interest and applications have recently waned. Now they are making a big push to get back on the radar of high school students.
"A lot of high schools don’t have shop programs anymore. Some do. We are making an effort now to reach into the high schools with our Bots STL program," said Bockerstett.
Coming up in April, they are participating in a BotsSTL Competition at Ft. Zumwalt South High school in St. Peters.
National Tooling and Machining Association leaders hope that spurs a life interest in a career field that is relatively well-paying. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in St. Louis, the median wage for a machinist is $22 an hour. Bockerstett says there are several ways for young people to get their foot in the door and taking on excessive debt to get a four-year degree doesn't have to be one of them.
"The best route would be get into a tech school. Another way is if you can get into a shop, we offer NTMA online training for chapter members. I think if anybody were to go into a shop and say 'Hey I’d like to learn how to do this', I don’t think they would have any trouble with a shop owner taking them up on the offer," said Bockerstett.
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