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More than 50 percent of North Bay manufacturers predicted growth above 15 percent during the next five years. By one estimate, they'll need to hire and train at least 3,000 new skilled and college-trained workers. But skilled technicians are hard to come by -- especially after several years of recession, and it won't get any easier as time goes by and seasoned workers retire.

"In Northern California nearly one-third of the manufacturing workforce is at or nearing retirement age," said Dick Herman, founder of the Northern California trade group 101MFG. Trade schools and apprentice programs, once the spawning ground of U.S. manufacturing, have dried up and blown away, replaced by a relentless focus on college readiness. Taking tests to prove academic prowess has become the most sought-after skill in middle and high schools.

"What are companies doing to replace them? In many cases, nothing at all, because the training budgets were the first things to go during the recession," he said. "There's a misconception that if a student takes shop, they aren't going to college. Actually, the best engineers somewhere along the line got that experience, either from High School or while working for an internship."

That's the challenge faced by several concerned groups, including the Sonoma County Office of Education, SkillsUSA and 101MFG. Especially now, while the U.S. and the North Bay are experiencing a manufacturing renaissance and good jobs with a career potential are hard to find.

"The engineering and practical skills gap is a real concern," said Stephen Jackson, director of career development and workforce preparedness for the SCOE.

Three components need to addressed, he said: young people- especially the best and the brightest, must see manufacturing as an opportunity for a good career; there must be practical training opportunities available to give them a wide sampling of industries; and college students and adults should have more focused training earning a degree or certificate.

SkillsUSA, a statewide tech competition and mentoring program for high school students and 101MFG are attempting to address the first need. 101MFG recently launched a high school career path program called 100 in 100.

"The initial goal was to expose 100 high school students in 100 days to job shadows, short-term internships and possibly Summer employment at some of our manufacturers," said Mr. Herman. "We were a little optimistic.”

But 40 students, sponsored by their schools, did shadow employees of local manufacturing companies, among them Bijan's Protective Equipment in Santa Rosa. Bijan's makes elbow and knee pads, mostly for the military, and recently expanded into sports apparel.

"One of our students was really creative," said Bijan's COO Stefan Kuehr. "He wants to design surfboards and he was fascinated by all the materials and what we can do with them. In a small production facility like ours you can see the whole process, from concept to design to production to researching the competition and marketing."

Pierre Miremont of Architectural Plastics in Petaluma hosted half a dozen high schoolers, who were surprised to see plastics being put to use in new ways. He would welcome them back as interns, he said, if they demonstrated the math skills and dedication to detail necessary to work there.

"There are no training facilities for what we do. All training takes place here," said Mr. Miremont.

Lemo USA in Rohnert Park, maker of electrical connectors, "offers extensive training to employees, and reimbursement for further education," said Julie Carlson, director of marketing and communications. But most specialized manufacturers don't have the budget to train.

According to Mia Kavantjas, human resources director at laboratory products maker Labcon in Petaluma, one of the students that shadowed employees was interested in a degree in engineering and might become an employee eventually. She scours Craig'slist and the engineering departments of UC Berkeley, Cal Poly and Cal State Chico for applicants.

"But our toolmakers are a very rare breed. Some of them went to trade school years ago. Most have 20 to 30 years in the industry. I don't know how we'd replace them - without programs like the CTMAA and Petaluma High School's shop," she said.

In lieu of trade schools, some local high schools are trying to beef up their shop programs, according to Mr. Jackson.

"Petaluma high in Petaluma has state of the art equipment. Sonoma Valley is upgrading its facility and Rancho Cotati is attempting to bring back a dormant shop program, but funding is a real challenge. When districts go to spend the shrinking state funds career tech is not a high priority," he said.

For students lucky enough to attend a well-equipped school, the rewards of an early introduction to hands-on projects are many.

Laura Gouillon, a student at Petaluma High School is one of those fortunate enough to have access. As a participant in Skills USA she competed for two years and was recently elected statewide vice president of the program.

"Last year I competed in the introductory drafting event and this year I'm in the technical drafting competition. It's not only fun, it gives me a chance to polish my teamwork and leadership skills, not that my palate of skills is that extensive," she said. "It's especially rewarding to be part of our Advanced Manufacturing Team," she said, "because in the real world that's how manufacturing is done - it's a collaboration between engineers, designers and factory technicians - it takes a team."

"Right now I'm thinking of a career in math, or art, or computer design." North Bay manufacturers should take note - their future workforce is out there, now is the time to engage them.