Strapped by a shortage of skilled industrial workers -- and Washington's inaction -- companies are taking training into their own hands

Robert Barbour is a classic Henry Ford type American tinkerer with a 1990s L.A. twist. Like Ford, Barbour, who never graduated from college, enjoys inventing new products. What gets built by his Windline Amanet divisions doesn't matter all that much -- a piece of advanced boating equipment, a nozzle for a diesel engine, a chassis for a compressor, a shaft for a gear box, or parts for high-tech biomedical machinery -- as long as Barbour can win the contract and make a profit.

But Barbour and like-minded entrepreneurs today face a problem Henry Ford never had: a shortage of skilled industrial workers. While the United States produces highly competent lawyers, doctors, scientists, and other professionals, notes a recent Labor Department study, in the noncollege-educated part of the work force "the U.S. is losing the competitive race."

"Finding people to do the right jobs is the toughest part of this business," says Barbour, whose company's sales in 1989 were expected to reach $3.2 million. "You can design the best product, but you can't produce it without the right people."

Similar problems exist in other locales. Rick Dawes, president of $6-million Enoch Manufacturing Co., a screw-machine job shop in Clackamas, just outside of Portland, Ore., says it can take six months to a year to find a skilled machinist. The best machinists at his 40-year-old family business now average in their fifties -- not a promising picture for the company's long-term future.

Much of the problem, Dawes says, lies in the educational system. While such nations as West Germany have extensive training programs for young factory workers, American schools tend to emphasize such fashionable postindustrial skills as computer programming. "Nobody wants to get into hands-on mechanical machining," complains Dawes. "That kind of work force is disappearing."

Under these circumstances, Dawes and other industrial entrepreneurs face three alternatives: close up shop, move to a country where such skills are still respected, or do something about it themselves. They certainly can't look to Washington for help. Despite George Bush's claims about being the "education President," federal budget considerations will likely cut off federal aid for worker training.

So, like Rick Dawes, entrepreneurs had better start taking matters into their own hands. In partnership with local high schools, Enoch Manufacturing has set up an innovative program for 10 juniors and 10 seniors who take classes at Enoch during the academic year and work in local screw-machine shops in the summer. "We took them in to show them what we do," Dawes says, "and show them that these are good jobs and these skills are valuable."

Pleased with the success of this program, Dawes and eight other Portland-area machine shops in conjunction with a local community college have initiated a more extensive program. The goal is to provide extra training for high-school shop students and employees at local machine shops, and assist those eager to switch careers into the machining industry. As in West Germany, the cost for the program will be shared by local government and industry.

The Portland model, however, provides just one possible solution. At Windline Amanet, Robert Barbour places a major emphasis on training within the shop. Rather than seek out talent from local schools, Barbour prefers to "grow my own." His key administrator, controller, and many of his top development people rose through the ranks. This includes several immigrants, who make up 13 of the company's 17 assemblers. Barbour, who was born in Argentina and grew up in Bolivia and the United States, uses his Spanish language skills and familiarity with the culture to get the maximum out of what is often written off as an underskilled work force.

By raising the skill levels of his own employees, mostly natives of Central America and Mexico, Barbour believes he can make up for their generally poor prior education and training. What they lack in skills, however, Barbour says immigrants make up for in their desire and willingness to learn hard and demanding industrial tasks.

"The average American wants a high-status, high-paying job. They want to work at a desk, not on the shop floor. You talk to people in college and in five years they expect to make $60,000 to $80,000. They see easy money in real estate, the stock market, and drugs -- making money without skills," he complains.

"The foreigners," he adds, "are different. They figure they came here to work hard. They are the backbone of the L.A. economy, not because they are working for low wages, but because they want to work."

At Windline, the company's marine division, Barbour leverages this work ethic by providing in-house training. Already the results have been excellent. His production supervisor, Irma Limon, for instance, was originally an assembler. Cesar Nava, once a grinder -- a low-skill job -- is now a technician in the research-and-development department. Another technician in that department, Mario Toledo, started as a polisher.

Coming from his native Guatemala about three years ago, Toledo started at the bottom, but has learned numerous skills -- including machining and welding. "Everybody here tries to move up," Toledo, 24, says. "Everyone has ambitions and wants to make more money and learn more skills."

Robert Barbour, along with Rick Dawes in Oregon and other entrepreneurs around the country, sees this kind of enlightened self-interest as the key to the growing skills crisis. Rather than waiting for Washington to get its priorities together, Barbour believes the best course for companies is to appeal to the prospective workers themselves. "If you use this approach," he sums up, "you can get much more out of your people. You win and so do they."