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Manufacturing Jobs Up, State Unemployment Down

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Iowa's unemployment numbers hit the lowest percentage in nearly three years in January. And one sector leading the charge may be a bit of a surprise.

According to Iowa Workforce Development, manufacturers added 3,500 jobs in January which was more than any other sector. The surprise could be manufacturing was the part of the economy that started shedding jobs early in the recession in 2008. But those in both manufacturing and industrial education say it's a change that's been going on for the better part of a year.

For instance, Tom Breashears worked in construction for 15 years. But the constant cycle of work and then long layoffs that got worse with the housing crisis convinced him to look for a different career. He chose a manufacturing trade and now works full time at Midwest Metal Products, as well as taking full time classes.

"It just felt like there was no futureójust keep working and maintaining. Being laid off for a few months here and there, it was never a consistent job," Breashears said.

Breashears went back to Kirkwood Community College in the fall of 2010 to retrain for a different career. A few years ago, job counselors might have suggested something like computers. But Breashears said he checked into the future possibilities and decided advanced manufacturing in Kirkwood's industrial technology area was a good choice.

Industrial Technology Dean, Jeff Mitchell, said more students are thinking about that path although some need to be convinced things have truly changed from the early days of the recession.

"Manufacturing does have some history from the recent downturn, so we try to let our student know what business owners are communicating," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said the biggest demand now in manufacturing isn't for people with basic factory skills. Rather, it's a search for those with the ability to use math and even engineering techniques to run more complicated machinery. That's the niche the advanced manufacturing courses at Kirkwood are trying to fill.

Yvonne Hoth, human resources director at Midwest Metal Products, said it's not easy to find people for some specific manufacturing needs and those jobs can go begging.

"Finding people with the right skillsóCNC (computer numeric control) or math skills is really hard," Hoth said.

And if manufacturers can't find all the people they need with the right skills, then those with those skills will find themselves in demand. And Mitchell said that's beginning to show up in the employment figures.

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