Mike Castonguay has a difficult time finding experienced workers in Carson City for his precision sheet metal-fabrication company. His solution: Take the initiative and train high schoolers to fill his ranks.
Castonguay and his business partner, Greg King, have devoted hundreds of hours to employee training and mentorship in the two years they've operated Metal Solutions in Carson City.
Castonguay talks about his "kids" like a proud teacher. Four out of his seven employees are under 21. One part-time employee attends Carson High School.
"When we bring them on, we don't promise them, but we give them opportunity, and they take the initiative," he said Thursday. "And they are appreciative."
Local manufacturers say the low unemployment rate - 4.2 percent in October - and the constant competition between tech firms for experienced workers have resulted in a shallow labor pool.
According to the 2005 Skills Gap Report, a survey conducted by The Manufacturing Institute, more than 80 percent of respondents indicated they are experiencing an overall shortage of qualified workers.
Half of respondents indicated their current employees have inadequate basic employability skills, such as attendance, timeliness and work ethic. Another half reported inadequate problem-solving skills; 36 percent indicated insufficient reading, writing and communication skills.
Phyllis Eisen, vice president of The Manufacturing Institute, the education/research arm of the National Association of Manufacturers' Unions, said America's system of educating its non-college bound for the workplace needs vast improvement.
"The education system is not aligned with most of the business community," she said. "Especially not the kind of skills that are needed for manufacturing to stay competitive locally. On one side of the table there's education, and the other side is the real world."
The association's platform on reforming education is broad: integrate high school course work with technical and career training, teach higher levels of math and science, and promote career literacy.
Eisen said professionals should be brought into the schools to teach and to tell teens what it takes to work in their fields. Students should be taught to run math and science programs on computers, not just how to play on them.
"We are in a race for our lives for talent, and the country that has the best talent and best work force is going to be the winner," she said.
Anne Hansen, Western Nevada Community College spokeswoman, said the college has increased its number of applied-science degrees and certifications in the last 13 years.
The college has increased to 147 applied-science degree programs from 89 in 1992. The certificate, or one-year programs, have stayed around 50.
"We had special welding classes for those who lost jobs after 9/11," Hansen said. "The certificate programs developed in a large part to needs in the community."
She said the college has formed certificate and degree programs for careers needed in Carson City at different times, such as 911 dispatchers. The college, in partnership with Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center, developed a two-year health information technology program for the business side of health care. The program already has 100 students.
Castonguay said he has wanted to visit schools, but no one has asked him, and his calls of inquiry have not been returned. It was a local church that brought out its students to learn about careers in sheet metal fabrication, not a school.
"If we don't take the initiative as business owners to go out and train our kids, nobody will," he said.
His apprentices started out at $7 an hour and have worked up to $12.50 in less than two years. In six years, they can expect to get up to $25 an hour, Castonguay said.
Niels Odegard, 20, is a Carson High School graduate and the head programmer and punch-press operator with Metal Solutions.
"(The salary) is definitely livable," he said. "I'm looking to learn as much as I can right now. Within the next two months, I'm going to get more into machining."
Salaries across the board in manufacturing are 22 percent higher than all other industries, except for federal workers, said Eisen. The average salary of production and craft workers is $62,000 a year, with benefits.
About two years ago, Mark Holmes closed his plastic-injected and die-cast mold shop because of overseas competition. Holmes said his job as a machinist at Cable Connection, in Carson City, is more secure because it makes products that aren't manufactured in other countries, where labor is cheaper.
He said the salary for tech workers hasn't increased that much over the past 30 years because American manufacturers have had to cut costs to compete.
"Why would anyone want to go into these fields for the amount of pay that you're going to get, for the time you have to put into it?" he asked. "Six to seven years is too long to wait to get $25 an hour."
Can a smaller city such as Carson City attract labor from California, where the salaries are higher? Eisen said it's true of any industry that salaries range by geography. Quality of life is often the principal attraction.
Odegard said Carson City is the ideal small town. He's a skier, and Lake Tahoe is a 40-minute drive away.
n Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1212.
Recruiting tech workers
• Nevada recruiters launched a Web site recently to catch the eye of technology professionals.
• Recruiting Nevada and Technology Business Alliance of Nevada, both based in Las Vegas, developed NVTechnologyJobs.com for companies searching for labor and tech professionals looking to relocate.
• This Web site is for the entire state, but all of its listings are currently for Las Vegas.
• To list a job opening or for more information, visit RecruitingNevada.com or call (702) 240-4100.