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Solving manufacturers' jobs dilemma

Larry Corbesia is willing to talk—it's just that he has a job to do.

So as a TV crew readies the camera for an interview, the 61-year-old excuses himself and goes back to his job of cutting and prepping leather, which will be used to make J.W. Hulme's high-end accessories, handbags and luggage.

"It makes you feel proud when you see a finished product here, and it looks real good and you did your best on it and everything is nice and neat and straight," Corbesia said when the cameras rolled. "And it's guaranteed for life."

For Corbesia, his life is better these days. In a blue vest and white shirt, he bears no physical signs of the years disrupted by alcohol, a scattered work history and months spent in a homeless shelter with his granddaughter. He looks trim with a full head of white hair parted on the side and appears decidedly happy in his work.

"I tell you after working pretty much handyman services where you barely scrape by, now it's good," he said. "You can buy what you want. When payday comes along, you can eat wherever you want and the self-esteem is good because people would say this guy hasn't had a job in 15 years. But now they have to keep quiet 'cause I got a good job where I go everyday."

Corbesia is one of three people St. Paul, Minn.-based J.W. Hulme has hired from a program it helped develop two years ago when it was faced with a shortage of skilled workers.

"At first, we managed," said the company's former CEO, Jennifer Guarino. "Business was growing so fast, we needed more skilled labor, and it became impossible to find. It started to worry about our company, and it started to strangle our growth."

J.W. Hulme's experience is not unique. More than 82 percent of U.S. manufacturers cannot find workers with the skills sufficient for the jobs they have, according to the Manufacturing Institute.

Challenges to rebuilding the industry

Just how many jobs are open due to this "skills gap" is the subject of some debate. It could be as few as 80,000 jobs, according to a 2012 Boston Consulting Group study. But it could be as high as 600,000, according to a 2011 study done by Deloitte & Touche and the Manufacturing Institute.

Two years ago, Guarino reached out to Minneapolis-based Dunwoody College of Technology. She asked it to help design a curriculum to teach the industrial sewing skills needed on the factory floor.

But building a skilled workforce after decades of erosion in an industry is not easy. From 1960 through 2012, the number of Americans working in the textile and apparel industries dropped 83 percent to 166,000 from 1.2 million, according to the Manufacturing Institute.

Debra Kerrigan, Dunwoody's dean of workforce training and continuing education, told Guarino the school would offer a course, but only if its students would be offered jobs once they finished it.

The two went to work finding other companies that needed workers with these skills, and The Makers Coalition was formed. It is a group that includes Dunwoody, J.W. Hulme and other manufacturers like dancewear maker Kelle Co. Their goal is to train people in industrial sewing skills, hire them and promote the trade.

A worker sewing at J.W. Hulme.
Mary Thompson | CNBC
A worker sewing at J.W. Hulme.

"Companies don't want to focus on training, they want to focus on being productive and selling their products globally, " said Kerrigan. "They couldn't do this if they were wasting their machines on training."

The program's curriculum

Kerrigan said members of The Makers Coalition provided input on what skills they were looking for in a prospective hire. They also helped Dunwoody shape the curriculum, though after the first class of 18 students entered the workplace, it became clear changes needed to be made.

"Truthfully, the first pilot program was really tough," Kerrigan said. "The industry wanted more time on the machines, more fabric, different skills on the fabric."

Dunwoody reduced the students' time studying theory and math and increased the time sewing. It added electives to the six-month course that include upholstery and machine maintenance. Kerrigan said the moves have paid off as the second round of students earned much higher marks from future employers.

The six-month course costs $4,220 and since many of the students are part of the "underemployed" or are immigrants, members of The Makers Coalition and other organizations like the United Way subsidize their tuition.

Still, finding students has required some legwork. Kerrigan said high school students are a tough sell as few are interested in sewing. The better prospects are older people who are underemployed or unemployed.

"Older students really need jobs," she said, noting they have children in college and high school who need financial support. Their retention rates are better and they want the training, she added.

The average age of a student in the program is 38 years old, but some younger people are still interested. Joshua Carter, a 27-year-old who started the program in September, said he hopes to gain the skills he needs to eventually launch his own line of accessories.

"My ultimate goal would be to start my own business," he said.

Kerrigan said 90 percent of the students who have taken the course have been placed. They earn an average starting salary of $13.46 an hour, which works out to more than $27,997 a year if they work 40 hours a week, and get two weeks paid vacation.

There is room for advancement as well.

"So much of the retiring workforce is line leaders, production leaders, production engineers," said Guarino, who is now watch and leather goods market Shinola's vice president of leather division. "They are positions that will need to be filled again, and there is no better way to start than as an industrial sewer."

That is how Corbesia restarted his career. While he finds he is better suited for cutting and painting leather, his primary jobs at J.W. Hulme, he is interested in trying his hand again at the sewing machine. For now though, his time at Dunwoody has paid off in the most important way.

"They just guaranteed us a job," said Corbesia, now a member of an industry being stitched back together after years of cuts.

—By CNBC's Mary Thompson.

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