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Closing the Manufacturing Skills Gap

A skilled welder in a South Carolina plant

A skilled welder in a South Carolina plant

American manufacturing is today facing a quandary.  On the one hand there is a lackluster jobs situation, with the economic picture slowly improving but not resulting in much improvement in unemployment rates.  When someone loses their job, they will statistically be 27 weeks without a paycheck.

At the same time, employers consistently say they are having a hard time filling vacancies.  According to Deloitte’s report The skills gap in US manufacturing: 2015-2025 outlook, 2 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled by 2025, up from 600,000 in 2011.

This gap is proving to a real bottleneck to a strong rebuilding of the manufacturing sector.  While companies have the innovative smarts to develop new products and improved production methods, the inability to fill positions to make use of these developments is crimping economic growth of the sector.

Companies are finding the skills shortage creating difficulties to keeping up to date with technology, providing good customer service and expanding globally.

Why is this shortage occurring?

There are a number of reasons for this shortage.

  • A significant level of offshoring over the last two decades depleted the workforce of manufacturing skills. When there were no manufacturing jobs, workers looked elsewhere for employment and training.
  • Partly as a result of that trend, manufacturing lost its luster as a go-to field of employment. Educators have themselves been turned off.  Attending a high school board meeting some years ago, I heard an educator practically spit out, “We’re not a factory society”.  Such sentiments reflect the loss of glamor that the manufacturing sector has suffered – educators are steering young people away from the sector.
  • Along the same lines, millennials now entering the workforce have little interest in the manufacturing sector. Used to instant gratification, app-based relationships and information at their fingertips, they can’t visualize themselves at a production workstation.
  • The baby boomer generation is approaching or has passed retirement age, leaving significant holes in the workforce as they take their long-honed skills with them.

This is a tragedy, both for the unemployed who are often in close proximity to unfilled openings, and to companies whose contribution to the economy is constrained by unfilled openings. There are a number of things that can be done, however.

  • Revive the appeal of the manufacturing sector. It’s not just about a job, mindlessly punching the clock. Manufacturing is the only real way of increasing the nation’s value, by taking raw materials and using the workforce’s skill to transform them into something of genuine use to consumers. A commodity-based economy simply moves a raw material from one place – the mine or oil deposit, for example – to another, often another country. A strictly service-based economy is one in which cashiers, fast food preparers and child care workers, while all essential, add little new value to the nation’s wealth.
  • Teach the basics of new collaborative manufacturing principles to young people, such as lean production, continuous improvement and six sigma. These paradigms get even shop floor workers involved in managing the plant, providing them with incentives for buy-in and participation that former generations of assembly-line workers never had.
  • Promote a culture of attainable achievement. Workers need to know that the skills they need are not out of reach.  When a company’s workforce can see a career path ahead of them and an achievable goal, retention will be fostered and help solve the skills gap.

It is vital that America’s manufacturing closes the skills gap.  The 21st century is proving to be one of great challenges and we need to rise to those challenges.  There is much more to be done and that will be the subject of subsequent posts.

What is your company doing to close the skills gap?

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