In an age when General Motors Corp. wants to slice 50,000 hourly workers from its rolls and plummeting Asian currencies make off-shore investment more enticing than ever, Mike Miller offers a desperately needed fresh face for American manufacturing.

A 19-year-old raised in the Detroit suburb of Clinton Township, he is in the midst of a machining apprenticeship that will qualify him as a journeyman jig and fixture maker. Michigan Gauge Specialties Inc. has employed him since January 1997 while he completes a series of math and metalworking classes at Macomb Community College. He is earning about $8.40 an hour. Because the apprenticeship is sponsored by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, he can boost his pay to as much as $23 an hour within two or three years.

"I've generally always wanted to be a toolmaker because my father was," says Mr. Miller, who helps his father make parts in their garage for a collection of antique engines. "Some of the engines we have go back to the late 1800s. You can't just go out and buy parts for them. You have to make them yourself. "

Unfortunately, not enough students want to be like Mike. Never mind that those capable of operating computer-controlled machine tools can easily earn between $50,000 and $80,000 a year.

Vocational and technical schools can't keep up with demand for skilled metalworkers. The National Tooling and Machining Assn. in Fort Washington, MD, estimates that 20,000 vacancies exist in the tooling industry today.

Robert Sherman, executive director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills in Washington, DC, says that number will double by 2003.

Then there is "Driving America's Renaissance," the 1996 study published by the Michigan Jobs Commission that the auto industry will need to hire 250, 000 new workers by 2004.

"So what?" you say.

A 1997 survey of American manufacturers by the Grant Thornton consulting firm found that 21% of the companies responding said they had either postponed or decided not to add new lines of business because they could not find enough skilled workers.

Members of the Rochester (NY) Tooling and Machining Assn. reported that from mid-1995 through mid-1996, the dearth of trained machinists forced them to turn away $25 million worth of work.

Harry Moser, president of Charmilles Technologies Corp. in Lincolnshire, IL, sells electrical discharge machine tools used to create stamping dies and molds. He describes the consequences more bluntly.

"Once you lose tooling jobs, the part might be stamped in the U.S., but the mold is produced in Thailand. Then pretty soon the molding is transferred to Thailand. Before you know it the die itself is designed in Thailand. That's a very real scenario," says Mr. Moser.

The problem is affecting everyone from the world's largest automotive supplier to the mom-and-pop machine shop.

"Our work force, and all of us, are getting older. The average age here at Delphi is right at 50," says J.T. Battenberg III, president of Delphi Automotive Systems and GM executive vice president. "Many of our people are getting to their 30th year with the company, so we're having a tremendous amount of attrition."

Sure, technical skills like electrical engineering and computer programming are in unprecedented demand. Those with bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering will draw attractive starting salaries and even, in some cases, sizable signing bonuses.

But the most acute shortage is in the nitty-gritty fields of tool, die and mold-making; precision machining and programmable numerical controllers.

After decades of media-reinforced images of manufacturing as a dead-end career, both human resource managers and educators are battling to change perceptions that have settled in our minds like concrete.

The average high school student, if he is aware of metalworking at all, likely associates it with low-tech, noisy, grease-filled factories where earning power peaks by age 30 and automation will eventually eliminate your job com-pletely.

The truth is that learning to operate these increasingly complex machine tools requires a solid background in mathematics. These are not jobs designed for those who can't cut it in the conventional academic classes.

"You can't tell a high school kid who can't do algebra, geometry and trigonometry that he's going to be a tool and die maker," says Gerry Hope, project director for Metalworks, a school-to-work program in the L'Anse Creuse School system in Clinton Township, MI.

"It's a tough sell, but we're in a zone right now where we're being bombarded by industry and businesses," says Mr. Hope, who has been instrumental in developing a curriculum model established with the National Institute for Metalworking Skills. His program currently is working with 32 students. Mike Miller is one of the first students he placed in an apprenticeship.

"You've got to really want to do this stuff," says Mr. Miller. "Not too long ago I was working 12 hours a day Monday through Friday and six hours on Saturday for a couple months, and I still had to make time for two classes a week plus homework."

The key, says Mr. Hope, is to develop a standardized, measurable range of skills that owners of machine shops will recognize as directly related to the processes performed in their businesses. Just as automakers and their largest suppliers require vendors to be certified in such quality assurance processes as QS 9000, Mr. Hope foresees the day when machine shops looking for lathe operators, precision machinists or tool and die makers, will require completion of the NIMS-certified training regimen as a prerequisite.

Metalworks requires students to pass an entrance exam. Then there are three levels of proficiency. In the case of Mr. Hope's program, the first two are taught at the Pankow Career Center in Clinton Township. The third level is taught at nearby Macomb Community College. Students spend three hours in the classroom each day, two in the machining lab where they are learning to operate the same type of equipment they will use in their apprenticeships, and one hour of math.

There are now more than 15 Metal-works programs in Michigan, and more than 11 states are beginning to implement the NIMS skills standards. Mr. Sherman says about 1,200 students throughout the U.S. will earn the NIMS credentials this year and his goal is to boost that to 3,000 by the year 2000.

But that's barely enough to fill 15% of the immediately available jobs. To illustrate how much more needs to be done, a recent report from a California task force on work force development found that more school systems are shutting down their metalworking programs than investing to modernize them. Indeed, the study found only 17 schools in California still offer a certified high school metalworking machine shop course.

Blaming parents for wanting their children to go to four-year colleges and prepare for traditional professions such as law, medicine or accounting won't solve the problem.

In the 1996 study "Driving America's Renaissance," the most profound finding was not that 250,000 auto-related jobs will be opening up over the next decade. It was the bitterness with which U.S. industry regards educators for failing to give students the specific skills needed in the work force.

There was scathing criticism from employers of applicants' lack of math and reading skills, work ethics, attentiveness and discipline. Some of it is deserved.

"We never really understood what employers needed, and our product was never what industry needed," Mr. Hope concedes.

Conversely, the private sector bears its share of responsibility. Executives of manufacturing firms need to get more involved in advising vocational-technical schools about the skills they need to build among their students. They also need to invest money in equipment, teacher training and other resources.

This is beginning to happen.

Delphi Automotive Systems and its parent GM, for example, have been active for the last three years in a program called For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST. Teams of high school students and teachers work with engineers from sponsoring companies to build robots that compete in a game.

The object is to guide the robots to pick up nine color-coded 21-inch vinyl balls and place them on a steel rail or in a cylindrical basket. There are five players on a team. Two control the robot. One can throw balls into a hexagonal playing field in locations that make it easier for the team's robot to pick them up. The fourth and fifth players "coach" the robot controllers by telling them how to maneuver the robot.

Students not only operate the robots, they also design and build them.

"It gives them a chance to apply math and science concepts that they previously could see no practical use for," says Michael Martus, who teaches a class in small engine repair at Pontiac (MI) Central High School and co-ordinated a team that won FIRST's Great Lakes Regional competition last March. "It also teaches them planning and teamwork skills. Each student has to fill out a four-page application. They also must go through an interview. We then select those we think can best serve the needs of the team. You must maintain a 2.5 grade point average on a scale of 4. Last year we had 80 applications for 37 positions."

Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Academy of Manufacturing Sciences program, now in its eighth year, tries to blur the line between vocational and academic career paths, says its program manager Larry Bruno.

Just because a student wants to go to college, and eventually graduate school, is no reason they can't gain some exposure to basic principles of how products are designed and produced.

Essentially, FAMS augments existing curricula with a sequence of four courses students may take during their junior and senior years of high school. The first of these, called "The World of Manufacturing," offers a survey of history, economics and production processes. Another course focuses on "Statistical Methods for Manufacturing Quality." A third trains students in the use of basic computer software used within a manufacturing environment.

To complete the program, students must take a course called "Case Studies in Manufacturing," in which they apply skills learned in other courses to specific manufacturing problems, many of which they take from a six-week summer internship they experience with a company (not necessarily Ford) in their local community.

>From a handful of school systems in the Midwest, FAMS now reaches about 1, 800 students spread throughout 72 schools in 16 states and Canada.

Esma Elmazaj completed the program in 1994 at Fordson High School in Dearborn, MI. Before that she was planning to go to college and major in pre-med. Today she is about to earn her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Wayne State University. She works as a powertrain engineer for Ford, where she says her goal is to become the company's first woman CEO.

Like most young people, she concedes that her initial career plans were drawn from images on television.

"You have kids drawing their role models from shows like ER and Ally McBeal. When did you ever see a show about people working in factories?" Ms. Elmazaj asks.

Beyond the challenge of finding qualified young people fresh out of school, manufacturers are grappling with the threat of higher turnover as the tightest labor market in three decades makes it harder to retain highly skilled workers.

"Our folks are definitely becoming more attractive to other employers," says Lori Conen, vice president of human resources for Siemens Automotive Corp.'s fuel injector plant in Newport News, VA. "Unemployment in the Tidewater area is 2.9%."

So Siemens has put a heavy emphasis on continued training of its existing workers. Although the plant's 700 workers are represented by the International Association of Machinists, the union has accepted a "pay-for-knowledge" compensation scheme that pays more to people who expand their range of skills. There are college-level courses taught on-site covering such subjects as statistical process control and just-in-time inventory management.

At the same time, Siemens participates in local middle schools and high schools to stimulate interest in technical careers through the five public schools systems in the immediate area around Newport News and Norfolk.

"We send our younger employees out to the classroom with videos and product demonstrations," Ms. Conen says. "We have a couple of high school teachers interning here this summer so they can more effectively communicate to students about the demands of today's work place."

But she cautions that only making high school curricula more relevant to specific industries isn't enough.

"We need more emphasis on the ability to integrate all these skills," Ms. Conen says. "It's not okay to be good at science, but not at English. You have to be agile. You also have to believe that you will need to continue to learn. With the global economy, there is no way we can compete with the Third World except on resourcefulness, agility and creativity. We clearly can't compete on labor rates."