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High demand: Army depot in hiring surge, but some skills are hard to find


Gadsden State Ayers Campus at the welding instruction building. Anniston Army Depot co-op student Justin Simmons. Photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star

A boost in the defense budget has led to a boost in hiring at Anniston Army Depot, depot officials said this week.

“There are some skills they’re having a tough time finding right now,” said Nathan Hill, military liaison for the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber on Sunday took out a full-page ad in The Anniston Star on behalf of the depot, announcing job openings at the Army installation, where the Army fixes and refurbishes small arms, tanks and various armored vehicles.

With about 2,900 direct federal employees and hundreds more employed by contractors, the depot is Calhoun County’s largest employer, though jobs there declined significantly in the past decade, with the drawdown from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hill said that trend has been reversed in recent months. The depot has hired about 400 people in the past year, depot spokeswoman Clester Burdell said in an email. They’re still looking for people to fill another 233 positions.

Increases to the defense budget, Hill said, have the Army sending their equipment back for servicing more often – and have bumped up the need for workers. The jobs being advertised are for one-year appointments, with the option to extend the work for up to eight years.

“They know they have funding for the fiscal year, but there’s no magic mirror to tell us what can happen after that,” Hill said.

The county saw 4.1 percent unemployment in December, according to state statistics, while the statewide average was 3.9 percent. That’s a narrowing of the gap the area has seen over recent years, with Calhoun County typically trailing the state average.

The depot’s hiring seems to show up in those numbers, with the latest reports from the Alabama Department of Labor showing 6,900 manufacturing jobs in the county in December, up 400 from the year before. The number of federal workers in the county increased by 300 over the same period.

Postings on federal job sites show that some of the depot positions have been open since September. Hill said the jobs listed in the chamber’s ad – machine tool operator, welder, electroplater and others – are hard to fill because there’s a shortage of people with the training to do them.

State and local officials have talked for years of an ongoing shortage of skilled industrial workers. Lawmakers often cite “workforce development,” policy-speak for job training, as among their top priorities. Still, the state is having trouble digging its way out of the skills-shortage hole.

“We’ve got about 50,000 welders retiring every year, and about 25,000 getting into it,” said D. J. James, a welding instructor at Central Alabama Community College in Alexander City.

James, who’s been a welder for 23 years and a teacher for 13 of those years, said salaries have increased sharply in recent years as the shortage has grown. He said he expected $18 per hour when he started, while his students can make $36 per hour.

The problem, he said, is that an earlier generation of students expected to become white-collar workers instead.

“For a long time, people said ‘I want that cushy, office job in the air-conditioning,’” he said. “Now everybody needs these trades.”

Tim Green, director of workforce development for Gadsden State Community College, said welding and other trade courses are popular now, but the school can’t easily fill a deficit that began years ago. The depot does highly-skilled work that requires an experienced welder, he said, while recent graduates have plenty of options outside the federal work.

“Industry’s going wild right now,” he said. “They can work anywhere they want.”

Green said the same is true for other industrial jobs the college trains students to do, including electronics work — another field where the depot struggles to find workers.

The depot could see more business – many years down the road – if the Army picks Anniston as the location for repairs on the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, or AMPV, a new vehicle that went into production last year.

Congressmen and chamber officials last year said they expected a decision on the AMPV depot by the end of January, but that announcement hasn’t come yet.

Hill on Monday said he’s not sure when the AMPV decision will be announced.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.