Nearly 50 percent of employers across the country are facing difficulty filling "mission-critical" positions, pointing to a labor shortage that experts say is having an impact in the North Bay and beyond, according to a recent survey.

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The Manpower Group, the international staffing firm based in Milwaukee that conducted the survey, said that while this year's response is better than last year's, which was 52 percent, a large number of employers face hiring challenges despite high unemployment rates.

It's occurring in the North Bay, and it impacts a number of industries, but it has particular ramifications for the manufacturing, engineering and technical industries.

The persistently high unemployment rates across the region might lead some to think there is an abundance of people waiting for work, but it's not quite that simple, said David Ohman, who heads Manpower's Santa Rosa branch.

"Even though we've got this huge unemployment rate, they're not getting hired because they don't have the skills," Mr. Ohman said of some, though not all, of the unemployed workforce.  

Locally, leaders and employers have begun to address the issue, Mr. Ohman said.

"The county of Sonoma is doing a lot of the right things towards narrowing the gap and getting some initiatives in place to try to retrain or re-educate the workforce," he said.

Such efforts include the Economic Development Board of Sonoma County partnering with the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and Santa Rosa Junior College to address the issue, Mr. Ohman said.

The manufacturing sector across Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties in particular faces a significant looming gap -- thousands of jobs will need to be filled as the current workforce heads toward retirement age, according to Dick Herman, who heads the trade group 101MFG.

Across the four counties, just fewer than 20,000 people work on the production side of manufacturing, Mr. Herman said.  In total, the industry employs some 50,000 people across those counties, in positions that include sales and software developers, not simply production-line employees.

"Of those 50,000 that work for manufacturers, almost 30 percent are reaching retirement age," Mr. Herman said. "What that says is that even if manufacturing weren't growing, in the five to seven years, we're going to have to replace 30 percent of those jobs. The truth of the matter is that manufacturing is getting more productive every year, so we probably won't replace that 30 percent; we'll probably replace about half to two-thirds of those jobs."

Both Mr. Herman and Mr. Ohman said the reasons for the shortage are numerous, but both pointed to what they said is an early root cause -- a lack of educational programs that steer youths to such careers, often through vocational training, and perhaps an overemphasis on attending colleges or universities.

"In our schools, we've emphasized the wrong things. The point is we've de-emphasized the trades -- we look down on machinists and welders," he said.  

But while companies often cite difficulty in finding qualified talent as a top concern, companies need to be making efforts themselves to train talent and to develop its workforce, and not simply expect a highly qualified candidate to know from day one how to perform the job, according to Brenda Gilchrist, who heads the HR Matrix.

Mr. Ohman agreed.

"It's on the company. They're the ones that need the labor. They either outsource or find some way to improve the situation," he said. "Companies definitely need to have apprenticeships, more internships. They need to contribute to the solution to the extent that they can afford to."

Mr. Herman said the manufacturing industry, as a whole, supports training efforts given the high volume of jobs it will need to fill.

"Not only are we going to have to hire them, we have to find them and we have to train them," he said, noting that a state-approved program, the California Tooling and Machinist Apprenticeship Association, will expand significantly in the coming months. The program will ask that employers pay $2,000 per year to support employees could reach a high level of certification by going to night school two nights week.