This time it’s the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s turn. “Precision Factory Jobs in U.S. go Unfilled” the headline laments. The article then goes on to relate the trials of a precision parts maker in a small town in Pennsylvania that just can’t keep up with demand because of a lack of skilled workers.

This time it’s the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s turn. “Precision Factory Jobs in U.S. go Unfilled” the headline laments. The article then goes on to relate the trials of a precision parts maker in a small town in Pennsylvania that just can’t keep up with demand because of a lack of skilled workers.

How can this be?

The article reiterates the time-honored statistic that the typical manufacturing job pays about $60,000 a year. The baby boomers are retiring. Who’s going to take their place? Apparently, at the company in question, senior machinists earn a whopping $70,000 a year, this in a small town “nestled in the Allegheny Mountains” with what one would expect is a very reasonable cost of living. What’s wrong with kids these days?

In a word: Nothing. While it may be true that the typical factory worker makes big money, that ain’t the way it is for starting machinists in the Alleghenies. Apparently a new-hire machinist at the company in question makes $9 an hour, less than $19,000 a year. Manufacturers claim they want smart employees, but you’d have to be plain-old stupid to pull up stakes and relocate for that kind of pay. This is a company that makes “high-end parts for military helicopters and nuclear submarines,” and they’re paying nine bucks an hour?

Granted, the pay increases to $14.50 an hour after the new-hire completes some kind of training. But that doesn’t change the fact that paying $9 an hour for anything less than washing dishes in this day and age is on the low side, to say the least.

I’m sure this is a fine company, run by fine hardworking people-they have to be to survive in their industry. But the free market applies to labor as well as customers and suppliers. The fact that machines are sitting idle, that orders are apparently being lost and a help-wanted sign has become a permanent fixture ought to be telling you something.

“We’re not going to compete on the price of our labor, we’re going to compete on the skill of our labor,” the article quotes Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary of workforce development as saying.

Exactly!

The United States isn’t going to remain a manufacturing powerhouse by winning back contracts to assemble plastic playsets for Fisher Price or cheap electronics for Sony. It’s going to remain out front by manufacturing things like, well, helicopters and nuclear submarines! And that takes money.

To its credit, this machining company is willing to spend big bucks on training-as much as $120,000 per apprentice. But that just makes it all the more incredible that it should be offering such low starting wages.

ASSEMBLY magazine has long been in favor of keeping labor costs in check and freeing up work rules, so that companies can remain efficient and flexible. We have been quite vocal in our praise of the new contracts hammered out by the UAW and the Big Three automakers. But assemblers need to be wary of overreaching themselves. Doing so simply discourages America’s best and brightest from going into manufacturing.

Factory work isn’t easy. I’ve been there. I know. For all the horror stories of union workers pulling down huge wages for doing nothing, most American workers earn their money. If you don’t pay them what they deserve, they'll leave-or just never bother responding to that help-wanted ad in the first place.

It’s important to remember that Henry Ford didn’t become an industrial icon by simply driving down wages, but by creating a company that was innovative and highly efficient. Although it may boost profits in the short term, in the long run shortchanging workers runs the risk of shortchanging the U.S. economy.