Junior high school kids and their bicycles. That is what interests John Vyhlidal, one of the owners of Omaha's Tri-V Tool & Manufacturing.
Vyhlidal has a million things to do but still spends hours each month at schools and job fairs, trying to persuade, cajole and wheedle just a few more young people into taking a job on the factory floor.
What he is looking for are the ones who spent some of their early years doing things like taking their bikes apart and reassembling them, or helping out with changing the oil on the family car or farm combine.
“Like everyone in manufacturing, we are always looking, always have three or four openings,” said Vyhlidal, who with his two brothers owns the company that manufactures and assembles a wide variety of metal parts. “You can make a good living here right away, with eight to 12 hours a week of overtime a fairly common occurrence.”
While training is often needed, a college degree often isn't. And spurring interest in such jobs — which are there for the taking statewide at up to $20 an hour — is one reason Vyhlidal and his Nebraska manufacturing counterparts beat the bushes Tuesday night at a job fair at Metropolitan Community College's South Campus.
About 100 people attended the fair, which was organized by the Nebraska Department of Labor and included displays from about 40 area companies, including Valmont Industries, Elliot Equipment and the Omaha Public Power District.
All of the effort is put forth because manufacturing is big business in Nebraska, even with the state's enormous agriculture impact accounted for. Manufacturing accounts for about 13 percent of the state's $100 billion gross state product, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, supporting almost 100,000 jobs that pay an average of about $55,000 a year.
Problem is, good jobs are going unfilled, said Dwayne Probyn, executive director of the Nebraska Advanced Manufacturing Coalition.
“I know of one company that has had an opening for a tool and die maker for two years,” Probyn said, referring to a job operating complex machinery that makes jigs, fixtures, machine tools and other implements themselves used in manufacturing. “Science, technology, engineering and math, that's what we need.”
Carl Fielder is the director of career education at the community college, and he told the job fair attendees during a panel discussion that he can keep up with neither supply nor demand. His welding classes, almost canceled a decade ago for lack of interest, turn away people each year for lack of space.
Also denied: desperate employers who bang on his door on a regular basis searching for more skilled workers than he can supply.
“Placement?” he said, shaking his head. “We can't supply enough graduates to all the companies that call.”
Manufacturing is where a good part of the state's cachet is worldwide, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. Manufacturing exports totaled $5.8 billion last year, a number that has grown by more than half since 2009. About 15 percent of the state's factory jobs, or 31,000 of them, are tied to exports.
“A huge part of our economy is what is exported,” said Barry Kennedy, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry, an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers. “It draws worldwide attention to the whole state.”
Kennedy said there are jobs all over the state paying $17 to $20 an hour right out of high school for the best candidates — jobs in welding, metal fabrication and equipment assembly, with the wages and benefits that permit young people to start a family and get a start in life with none of the classwork, studying or debt incurred getting an academic degree at a four-year college.
Omaha's Chris Prucka is the type they are all looking for. Already enrolled in the welding program at Metro, he browsed around the job fair to see who was on hand and what they had to offer; he completes the program in a few months.
Out of high school, the 23-year-old began working as a sheet-metal worker and found that he liked it. The academic route, he said, isn't for everyone.
“Too many teachers and parents say, 'Don't do that, it is menial and backbreaking,' ” Prucka said. “Well it isn't menial and backbreaking. It is what built this country and it is what we have to get back to.”