Just before leaving the Surgical Implant Generation Network's manufacturing plant in north Richland on Tuesday, Sen. Patty Murray was cornered by a worker who had an idea or two about how to promote manufacturing jobs in the United States.
The first thing on his list was to change the public perception of factory work as grimy, gritty and back-breaking labor.
Murray nodded enthusiastically in response.
"I have said so many times we need to change the word 'manufacturing' to something more exciting," Murray said. "It sounds like it's from 1920, but it is a key, basic component of our economy."
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Murray, D-Wash., made her first visit to SIGN on Tuesday to hear more about the company's patented orthopedic nails, which are used to heal arm and leg fractures in disaster areas and developing nations around the globe.
But she also wanted to hear about the skills SIGN looks for in workers as she prepares to introduce legislation intended to help spur job creation and train workers in the job skills most in demand.
Murray said she often hears from business owners who say they are ready and willing to hire people, but can't find workers with the right qualifications.
She referred to the problem as a "skills deficit" and said it's just as real an issue for America to tackle as the budget deficit and national debt.
"This doesn't make sense -- we have workers who want to work, and we have businesses that want to hire, but we need to do a better job as a nation of bridging that skills gap," Murray said. "If we want America to be positioned to compete and win in the 21st century economy, we are going to have to have the workers right here in places like the Tri-Cities with the training they need to do that."
She cited a report from the Washington State Employment Security Department showing statewide job openings were up 31 percent last fall compared with the previous year, with an estimate of nearly 42,000 vacancies.
And more than 2,800 of those jobs were in Benton and Franklin counties, she said.
Murray said she has been working with Democrats and Republicans on a bill to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act, last authorized in 1998 when the national unemployment rate was about half of what it is today.
A key component of Murray's plan is the creation of public-private partnerships in which the business community, colleges and government would work together to ensure students get the skills that businesses most desire.
"Too often, I hear from students who feel that what they learn in school isn't relevant to the work they will do when they graduate -- and unfortunately, too often they're right," she said.
The plan would help not only young students just coming out of school, but also workers who have been laid off and need retraining, or adults in the work force who need to update their skills.
Murray said job growth is critical to solving the nation's economic problems.
"Absolutely we are focused on the (budget) deficit, but I'm worried about the skills deficit," she said. "We have to make sure we are educating and training our workers for the jobs of today. ... I think the Tri-Cities is really a great place to be looking at that."