WASHINGTON — Rep. Lee Terry kicked off a subcommittee hearing Friday by waxing a little nostalgic for his younger days when he swept up metal shavings at a tool and die shop.
Now a Republican congressman from Omaha, Terry said he visits the same types of businesses today and they are filled with computer screens and keyboards.
But finding people qualified to operate the advanced machinery can be a problem, at least based on the series of hearings Terry has held this year.
“Everyone testified that they have job openings that they have difficulty filling in today's advanced manufacturing,” Terry said.
Now in his eighth term in Congress, Terry took over in the current session as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. He's been holding “Our Nation of Builders” hearings to look at ways of bolstering the country's manufacturing industry.
Friday's hearing was devoted to the problem of providing companies with a skilled workforce and featured a panel of witnesses from industry and education.
Jennifer McNelly, president of the National Association of Manufacturers' nonprofit affiliate, talked about those shortages of skilled labor and the need to change the perception of manufacturing jobs — to make them cool again.
She praised the work of Tony Raimondo, Sr., of Behlen Manufacturing in Columbus, Neb., in having former students of technical education programs spread the word to the next generation of workers.
One issue the panel explored was how high schools are often evaluated based on how many of their students go on to attend college. Having a student instead obtain an industry certification and a decent-paying job is often viewed as a negative.
Friday's hearing was lightly attended with only a few members present from each party, and it was cut somewhat short because of votes on the House floor.
But Terry said afterward that it was good to see the panel working on such an important issue in a bipartisan way.
“We've got to provide these folks an opportunity to get the skills,” Terry said. “It used to be if you graduated from high school and got your diploma, you could walk into a manufacturing plant and earn a good middle-class salary. That's not true today.”