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US Economy in 'Slow, Steady Recovery': Airgas CEO

The U.S. is "in the third inning of a slow and steady recovery" as manufacturing and energy companies grow and hire more workers, Airgas CEO Peter McCausland told CNBC Wednesday.

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The Pennsylvania company, which distributes welding supplies, tools, safety products and specialty gases to a number of industries, had to reduce its workforce by 7 percent during the recent downturn. McCausland said the recession was the worst the company had experienced in its 25 years.

"Manufacturing fell off very sharply," he said, "but it wasn’t like the 1998-2002 period where plants were being shuttered every day and jobs sent overseas. Capital utilization went way, way down. But even during the [2008] recession new plants were being built."

He said thanks to pent-up demand in the U.S. and continued exports to developing nations, there has been an increase in Airgas' capital equipment and energy businesses "that's been very strong," and the company is almost back to full employment strength.

Not so the aircraft makers, shipbuilders, steel plants, farm and mining equipment makers and others Airgas works with. The manufacturing jobs that are coming back pay better but are more technical and require more training, McCausland said.

The bulk of the jobs lost during the recession were low-paying, nontechnical jobs in housing and retail, he said.

"A lot of jobs can’t be filled because they require technical training that the workforce doesn’t have," he said. "We serve the metal [fabrication] markets quite a bit and there’s a huge shortage of welders in the U.S. right now, and I’ve heard that there’s shortages in other technical trades. It’s a shame because these jobs are coming back in the U.S."

It takes six months to a year to train a welder, he said, and then there's an apprenticeship period. While there are more welding schools being opened, "it takes time. There's a lag."