There is a burgeoning movement to motivate students in America to consider careers in the unlikeliest of places – the factory floor.

Even in the face of job cuts amid the current economic turbulence, U.S. manufacturers have great concern about the growing shortage of young skilled labor needed to make products used in industries ranging from aerospace and medical devices to alternative energy and infrastructure improvements, according to industry experts.

Those heralding the cause include leading trade associations, regional economic development groups, TV personalities such as Jay Leno and John Ratzenberger, and even a teenage race car driver.        

“Although there have been significant job losses in certain industries and regions, many areas of the country are clamoring for skilled employees,” said Mark Tomlinson, executive director and general manager for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. “In Texas, the oil and gas industry has created a thriving manufacturing community. Parts of the Southeast have seen tremendous growth in several segments.”

A recent poll conducted by sponsors of the FABTECH International & AWS Welding Show revealed executives cited the lack of employee skills as a leading obstacle to growth.

“That supports what we’ve heard for a couple of years from leaders in the metalforming, fabricating and welding industries. They report their biggest challenge today is finding skilled workers, especially young people, who have the knowledge to handle the increasingly sophisticated tasks required in manufacturing,” said Jerry Shankel, president and CEO of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International (FMA). “For example, we are using laser light to cut metal now, and it requires a person proficient in math and science skills.”

The outreach to students and educators is taking two parallel tracks in response to the challenge. One dispels the negative image many have of factories as dark, dingy and dangerous, and such work as unfulfilling. The second highlights the chance to use fun, high-tech, computer skills and the opportunity to secure a career that pays well and offers advancement.

“Part of the problem is the media and Hollywood, who often portray manufacturing in a poor light, denigrating anyone who works with their hands,” said actor John Ratzenberger, star of the comedy “Cheers,” host of the factory-focused Travel Channel show “John Ratzenberger’s Made in America” and founder of the Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs Foundation (NBT) that encourages young people to consider careers in manufacturing.

“The manufacturing community must do a better job informing children that working in a factory is rewarding both personally and financially,” said Ratzenbeger. “It all starts with getting young people to take pride in tinkering and inspiring them to work with both their hands and their minds.” 

Many agree with Ratzenberger.

“The image of manufacturing is still very much misunderstood; people, particularly young people, believe that we have the manufacturing plants of the 1950s and ’60s,” Dr. G. Edward Hughes, president and CEO of Gateway Community and Technical College in Edgewood, Ky., recently said in a Cincinnati newspaper interview.

A report from the U.S. Department of Labor also noted, “Popular perceptions of manufacturing jobs as dark, dangerous and dirty are largely outdated as advanced robotics and other ‘intelligent’ systems become pervasive throughout the manufacturing process.”

Combating this image and shining a spotlight on the career opportunities in manufacturing now represent missions of more and more organizations, whether these are grassroots or national efforts. Here are just a few of the hundreds of initiatives taking place across America:

The Cleveland-based Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network sponsors videos shown in seven Ohio high schools that illustrate why manufacturing is a good career choice. A recent program on welding even featured Jay Leno, who extolled the virtues of the welders who restore his prized autos.

Two business groups in Manitowoc County, Wis., sponsor “Project Mini-Chopper” that showcases career opportunities by giving students real-life experiences with manufacturing. Student groups actually build motorcycles as school projects.

Ratzenberger’s NBT offers more real-life manufacturing experiences by issuing grants to educational and not-for-profit institutions that conduct summer manufacturing camps for kids with courses that focus on designing and building things. “The camps give the kids a tangible experience to make something they can be proud of and take home,” said Ratzenberger. “I can think of no enterprise more worthy than one devoted to inspiring the next generation of engineers, builders and manufacturers.”

The Oklahoma State University-Okmulgee MidAmerica Industrial Park in Pryor, Okla., conducts a two-day program called, “All About Manufacturing,” that targets K-12 educators and teaches them about manufacturing as a career choice – knowledge  they can pass on to their students.

FMA is now in its second year of featuring Florida teenage race car driver and welder Brennan Palmiter in efforts to reach young people. Initiatives include the “GO Brennan” scholarship program in which students apply by posting videos on YouTube, and a “Be True to Your School” program tied to FMA magazine Practical Welding today that has Palmiter visiting schools accompanied by his race car, to talk about welding, racing and manufacturing. “It’s important that people my age realize there are opportunities in the manufacturing field for them to pursue,” Palmiter said.  

“If parents and teachers don’t have personal experience in today’s manufacturing, they can’t guide their children with accurate opinions and information about manufacturing careers,” said Pat Lee, FMA public relations director and a member of the Rockford, Ill., Chamber of Commerce Manufacturers Council. “That’s why our council compiled a Web resource on manufacturing careers and provided it to the local high school district. The district then created a Web page on its site that is visited regularly by both students and parents.”

FMA’s Shankel sees this movement is starting to change the nation’s mind-set on manufacturing.

“So many organizations now are committed to make this happen and we’re beginning to see results,” he said. “Applications for our scholarships have reached record levels. Educators are paying attention. And, young people are flocking to manufacturing camps. Positioning industrial jobs as desirable and rewarding will fulfill specific needs of manufacturers and, without question, strengthen our economy.”

Based in Rockford, Ill., Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International is a professional organization with more than 2,300 members working together to improve the metalforming and fabricating industry through technology councils, educational programs, networking events and the FABTECH International & AWS Welding Show. FMA also has a technology affiliate, the Tube & Pipe Association, International (TPA), which focuses on the unique needs of companies engaged in tube and pipe producing and fabricating.