Illustration by Leslie Herman
It took Robert Polzin more than six months to find a new job after he was laid off in 2012. The 55-year-old machinist put in more than 60 job applications, got occasional interviews and even had a few offers before he finally got one through a temp agency that he was willing to accept – at $5 an hour less than he made before. He turned down a few that would have paid only half what he got from his last employer.
“I was making almost 20 bucks an hour,” Polzin says. “I don’t want to work for 12 bucks or 13 bucks an hour – I can’t live off that.”
For more than three decades, Polzin has worked at his trade. In his previous job, he was making brakes. “I was doing a lathe and a mill at the same time,” he says. The employer wanted more people cross-trained like him, so Polzin was asked to teach a co-worker how to use both machines.
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Then work got slow, he was told. He was let go. The last time he heard, the guy he trained was running the two machines.
If there’s any consolation for Polzin, it might be that he wasn’t alone. “I know a lot of older people who are out of work and who have the skills,” he says. Employers “don’t want to hire them for some reason. Maybe they think they’re going to retire in five or six years.”
And when he hears that employers are bemoaning – and have for years – a desperate shortage of skilled workers? “I don’t believe it.”
At Monarch Corp. on Milwaukee’s far Northwest Side, president, COO and part-owner David Mitchell has trouble believing the opposite – that more skilled, high-quality workers who could work for his company even exist.
Monarch is a job shop. Its factory produces components that other companies assemble into products – giant mining shovels, power generators, large water-treatment pumps. The parts Monarch makes can weigh up to 100 tons.
The work typically starts with massive castings produced in a foundry. After they’re delivered to Monarch, welders connect huge slabs of metal while machinists drill holes through iron and steel using computer-controlled machine tools that can cost $1 million or more.
“It has to be structurally sound, but it also has to be pretty,” Mitchell says, pointing out a clean, polished weld joint on what will become the frame of a mining shovel crawler. Since he took the company’s reins in 2007, his “No. 1 constraint to growth” has been finding people who can do those jobs.
“We simply weren’t seeing the applicant level – the number of applicants and also the applicants with the skills and the qualities we needed long-term,” Mitchell says. “We probably walked away from a million and a half to 2 million dollars worth of business.”
Taking those jobs would have required adding more employees. “The welders on the street and the welders in the job market – they simply weren’t there.”