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The numbers from manufacturing are looking good, I reported last week. Bill Strauss from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago told me that of the 2.3 million manufacturing jobs lost in the recession, at least 300,000 of those jobs have come back. That’s about 13 percent – and where we left off last week. Today, we look at why employers say it’s hard to find those skilled workers. I started in Greenville, Michigan.

Dan Spohn found a new job within two weeks of being laid off last November. (Sarah Alvarez)

In 2008, Dan Spohn was laid off from his West Michigan manufacturing job. It took him six months of effort: going online every day, knocking on doors, passing out resumes, before he found new work. He said at that point, trying to even land an interview was “almost non existent”.

“I think people were in a mode of wait and see,” said Spohn, who has had 22 years of experience, including management, in the quality control side of manufacturing. Spohn ended up leaving the automotive sector where he had worked and moved into medical parts manufacturing. He figured that was a safer bet. But in November, that company downsized, and he was out of work again. But this time, it was a lot easier – within a week of being laid off, he’s had two interviews and two offers.

“Within two weeks of that, I was starting a new job,” said Spohn.

From Spohn’s perspective, the labor market has really loosened up. He’s not alone.

“It seems like everybody we talk to, they are starving for skilled workers, they need people with good skills,” said Tom Crampton, an executive dean at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. Crampton focuses on manufacturing training – and he said expectations for today’s manufacturing worker are higher than they used to be.

Community colleges says welding is one of the in-demand manufacturing jobs right now (Niala Boodhoo)

“They want them to be good communicators, good problem solvers as well as having high end technical skills,” he said, especially in machining, welding, design and what he called “mechatronics” – people who can work with both mechanical and electrical components.

State and federal governments devote millions of dollars to helping unemployed workers get retrained – in Michigan, for example, the overall retraining budget is about $640 million this year.

Some of that goes to paying tuition at local community colleges. Across the Midwest, colleges say they are seeing vocational course fill up as the hiring need deepens.

Inside a welding lab at Richland Community College in Decatur, Illinois, Instructor Leo Suhre is keeping a careful eye on students learning to cut and weld metal.

Richland Community College's Douglas Brauer, l, and Leo Suhre. (Niala Boodhoo)

Last year, the school only had enough shop space for 12 students in each welding class. When those slots were taken, the college began offering an additional section at midnight.

“We ran that first the spring, and it started filling up, we ran it again in the summer – there’s a demand there,” said Douglas Brauer, a vice-president at Richland.

Enrollment for this course has increased 20 percent, and the midnight classes are now a regular fixture. Brauer said they’re especially popular with workers coming off second and third shifts at Caterpillar, one of Decatur’s largest employers. Now, the college is thinking about offering not just welding certification, but degree completion courses at midnight.

It’s also just authorized the building of a new workplace training center that will more allow it to more than double the size of its vocational classes.

Nationally, the jobless rate within manufacturing has dropped from a high of 13 percent in January 2010 to just under 8 percent.

One of the greatest needs is for machinists – specially, computerized numerical control – or CNC – operators.

“CNC machinists are red hot right now,” Daley College’s Ray Prendergast. Daley College has had a 137 percent enrollment increase between the fall of 2010 and 2011. Often, Prendergast said, his students are getting employment offers even before they graduate. At Humboldt College, the placement rate for jobs is 100 percent, he said.

In Skokie, Illinois, Symbol Job Training is a for-profit school that focuses solely on training machinists in CNC machinery, the standard on factory floors these days.

Student John Zawojski is a few months into the program. He had worked in warehousing for years, but got laid off, and hasn’t been able to find the same pay rates he used to get. He’s hoping that a CNC certification will change that.

Zawojski hadn’t heard of machining until the employment office told him it could be a good career – and said it would pay his tuition.

“I had no idea how to do any of this,” he told me as he punched codes into the control pad. “Now, I’m pretty good at it. I can actually make parts.”

Back in Flint, Crampton, from Mott Community College, says the conventional wisdom is that there aren’t any manufacturing jobs. The real problem, according to Crampton, is that there are pipeline issues: not just meeting today’s demand, but tomorrow’s, too.