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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Millions of manufacturing jobs were lost during the great recession. Some have come back, but not enough to employ everyone looking for work. One problem is that today's manufacturing jobs require more math skills.

From Chicago, Niala Boodhoo reports.

NIALA BOODHOO, BYLINE: North American Tool's Jim Hoyt has two openings right now at his northwest Illinois facility. But he often sees the same problem crop up during the application process.

JIM HOYT: I'll write a few numbers down, mostly numbers with decimal points, because that's what we use in manufacturing, and have them add them or subtract them, or divide by two.

BOODHOO: And often, they can't do it. Having basic math knowledge, especially of decimals, is important because of the precise inputs modern machines need.

Like most manufacturers, North American uses CNC - Computerized Numerical Control - equipment. CNC machines make everything from the cutting tool parts that North American produces to automotive or medical equipment. But these machines still require plenty of plenty of manual calculations. And if you're off - even by a fraction...

HOYT: It's going to crash.

BOODHOO: Hoyt says a CNC crash usually happens because of a number that's typed in wrong - or calculated incorrectly.

HOYT: I'll hear a wreck in my office and pretty much the whole shop will get quiet and it's like, uh-ohhh - somebody's done something wrong.

BOODHOO: That something wrong can cost his company tens of thousands of dollars in fixing the machine and lost productivity.

RAY PRENDERGAST: The six inches is the x-axis shift, the four inches is...

BOODHOO: This is where people go to learn to operate CNC machines - a class at Richard J. Daley College on Chicago's South Side. CNC machines are expensive, and these days, many employers don't want to teach the basics. So students are turning to vocational programs.

PRENDERGAST: Ray Prendergast heads the college's manufacturing programs. He says algebra and basic trigonometry are now prerequisites. While the college's admissions testing measures entry level proficiency - say an English 101 level, Prendergast says...

Certainly the majority of students who come into my program are not at English 101 - and they're not at Math 118.

BOODHOO: So Daley College is now offering remedial education for manufacturing. These bridge programs have become especially popular in the Midwest, where many who offer CNC or welding courses see students who just aren't ready to move forward. And these courses aren't just offered by colleges.

In Chicago, instructor Gabe Lopez is teaching math at the nonprofit Jane Addams Resource Corporation, one of the city's first bridge programs.

GABE LOPEZ: One place is tenths, two places is hundreds, three places is thousands and so on up to.

BOODHOO: One of Lopez's former students, Bernarr Patton, has graduated to a welding class. He says his bridge instruction was essential for teaching him the calculations he has to do.

BERNARR PATTON: Be able to read a vernier caliper, it's an instrument and it reads like to a 100,000th of an inch. Because you're measuring parts and some of these parts are so small. And if you don't know what 10,000th of an inch is, just take like a strand of your hair, and that's like close to 20 or 30,000th of an inch. You know what I'm saying? It's very, very small.

BOODHOO: He hopes to go into welding and start his own business. Patton wants to become part of the newest generation of manufacturing workers - not just because it's a stable career, but because it's a business opportunity he can pass on to his two sons.

For NPR, I'm Niala Boodhoo in Chicago.

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