There's a frustrating paradox in the U.S. labor market when it comes to manufacturing jobs. Thousands of factory workers have lost their jobs at many companies and yet there are manufacturers that can't fill open positions.
The numbers are dismal: Even as the economy continues to churn out new jobs, the manufacturing sector lost 29,000 jobs in March, continuing a streak of declines. According to a report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics earlier this month, the manufacturing sector lost an average of 3,000 jobs per month over the past year.
Today, there's still a shortage of highly skilled workers. One CEO has an idea about how to remedy situation, an idea not without controversy.
"I know with my business, the greatest challenge we have is finding people that have the skills and experience to do the more complex types of manufacturing, that's programming the automated machines, working with 3-D CAD data," explained Mitch Free, CEO of Atlanta-based ZYCI CNC Machining, and founder of MFG.com, the largest online marketplace for the manufacturing industry.
"That skill set is very, very abundant in Asia for example. I actually ran an ad in Taiwan to see what kind of responses I would get. I got many, many responses from people that have amazing skills sets that would love to come work in the U.S."
Free said he runs the same ad consistently in the U.S. and he only gets a response "every now and then" from a qualified person.
His idea: The U.S. government should expand its H-1B visa program to include manufacturing. The controversial program allows U.S. companies to recruit and temporarily hire foreign workers in specialty occupations, like high tech, but there has been criticism that companies have abused it.
Free reached the same conclusion after reviewing recent government data, learning that "98.2% of the quota for H-IBs went to people in computer-related fields. Now that's ridiculous. There are Americans here that have great skills in IT and those people are abusing the program because they're bringing people from overseas to displace American workers with lower-paid workers. That is an abuse, and that should be stopped."
Immigration has become a hot-button issue in the presidential campaign, with several candidates expressing their dislike of the H-1B program. But Free believes H-1B visas can be granted in a way that, in the end, benefits American workers.
"If we really want to bring manufacturing back to America as we keep talking about, we have to rebuild our talent pool and our infrastructure," said Free. "I think we should leverage the people that took the manufacturing from us. We should bring those people back over here, let them come in as a guest worker for one year, two years, whatever it is, and let them help us rebuild our manufacturing economy and train the next generation of highly skilled workers."