A recent visit to Quality Online's reader forum to gage some of the topics of interest, left me baffled. A topic that surfaced a number of times was the search for qualified technicians to operate advanced equipment. One visitor was looking for operators in multiple cities, including the town I used to live in. Now, I know many people and companies in that area where the skill set exists, and I will send that person some contacts he can use, but the fact that these manufacturers are having difficulty finding qualified operators bewildered me.

For years, voices have rallied that to solve the shortage of qualified workers in manufacturing there must be education and incentives to high school and college students to get them to decide on engineering and manufacturing careers. While that is a step in the right direction, frankly, at those ages, it's too late for such efforts to be very successful. To stir interest in manufacturing and engineering, one must start teaching children about its importance in grade school. It has to be made as attractive and exciting as being a firefighter, police officer or software billionaire. But such an approach takes time. Today's 5-year-old won't be ready for the workforce for at least another 15 years. What is a manufacturer to do in the mean time?

President George W. Bush and members of Congress have all agreed on the need for a guest-worker program to fill unwanted jobs in the United States. There is plenty of debate as to how such a program might work, with various lawmakers putting forward different ideas for implementation. But, the fundamental point is that more aggressive recruitment of educated immigrants-legal or not-can solve some short-term manufacturing needs.

An immigrant would have to have some degree of education to meet the needs of, say, running a coordinate measuring machine, but many already have such education and may only require some machine-specific training. For those immigrants interested in such manufacturing jobs, but who lack education, companies and community colleges could devise courses for filling in the gaps.

The continuing challenge manufacturers face in recruiting people to their profession is creating appeal for such positions. Immigrants looking to make better lives for themselves do not have to be "sold" on manufacturing jobs. It gives immigrants stable lives and more-than-decent wages in most cases. Under Bush's and Senator John McCain's plans for worker programs, it would also provide an incentive for becoming a U.S. citizen. And if that new immigrant manufacturing employee has a family, those children become aware, at an early age, of the benefits of working in manufacturing.

Employers benefit as well. Besides filling an immediate position, they usually have an operator who is extremely loyal-a rare commodity in today's environment of transient U.S. employees. While they work, through associations and individually, to educate and excite today's grade school children about manufacturing and engineering jobs for tomorrow, they have a motivated and able work pool to fill today's needs. Today's educated immigrant worker is an integral part of the needed 15-year solution.

What do you think? Can allowing illegal immigrants to work in the United States legally help solve the shortage of those available to fill manufacturing jobs? How do we get people excited about entering careers in manufacturing? Write me with your views and ideas at [email protected].