Manufacturing Skills Gap Needs a Closer Look

The manufacturing skills gap is real. The report by Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Manufacturing Institute, “Boiling point? The skills gap in U.S. manufacturing”, puts the number at 600,000 manufacturing job openings. The 600,000 number of total available manufacturing jobs in the country is based on a median number of 5% from about 1,100 respondents that they surveyed.

Manufacturing skills gap – the abyss is imminent!

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 264,000 manufacturing job openings as of Dec 31, 2011 – up from 100,000 just 2 years ago.

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Either way, that’s a lot of jobs and manufacturers say that the reason they are having trouble filling them is a lack of skills needed to do the jobs. Most applicants are simply not qualified because they lack the necessary skills. The study concluded that manufacturers could not bear the burden of training worker skills alone and that they recommended changes in national public policy to help with the problem.

A Different Viewpoint From The Huffington Post

Since the findings of the study were released, there have been many articles and news reports on the story along with much commentary. All one has to do is Google the search term manufacturing skills gap to see pages and pages of search results. For example, on February 21, 2012 there was an article published at the Huffington Post website entitled. “‘Skills Mismatch’ Causing High Unemployment? Not Quite” by Lila Shapiro.

The article took issue with a number of points in the study arguing that:

  1. The Bureau of Labor Statistics put the number of unfilled jobs at less than half the number reported – less than 230,000 vs 600,000.
  2. The 600,000 number of unfilled jobs was reported by the Washington Post and was attributed to the Manufacturing Institute, an industry trade group.
  3. Wages should be rising if there was a big shortage of workers, but this was not the case.

The article goes on to say:

Some academics and labor advocates say a problem with the skills mismatch argument is that it shifts the blame for the jobs crisis onto workers who lack skills, and away from cash-rich companies declining to hire.

In the Huffington Post article, Paul Osterman, a professor of human resources and management at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management stated that “The point of the argument is to then say: ‘We don’t need to ramp up demand or infrastructure investment. We need to fix people,’” and that “Firms are always interested in shifting the costs of training to the public sector.”

The concern in the article was that public funding for job training partnerships between colleges and businesses would benefit a single manufacturer. The article pointed out an example in North Carolina, where $1 million was spent to develop a custom curriculum at a community college for workers at a Caterpillar plant. In this case Caterpillar was the primary beneficiary.

The Huffington Post article had some good points and demonstrates that long term, workable solutions will require a thoughtful and balanced analysis of the problems that face U.S. manufacturers with regard to narrowing the skills gap.

Another Response With Solutions to the Problem

Another article in the Software advice website on March 6, 2012 entitled “Three Ways to Overcome the Manufacturing Skills Gap” by ERP Analyst, Derek Singleton offers some solutions to the problem.

The author discusses three ways in which people can be equipped with the right skills so that something can be done about the problem right away:

  1. Strengthen educational partnerships
  2. Invest in corporate in-house training programs
  3. Energize the workforce of tomorrow

Solution number 1: The article points out that partnerships between schools and manufacturers already exist to teach the needed skills and that such partnerships are “proven models for workforce development that can have an immediate impact on the skills deficit” and that “these partnerships need to be strengthened.”

Solution number 2: Trying to find employees with the exact job skills for a job opening is unrealistic and most manufacturers realize this. The article points out that manufacturers should be looking for aptitude in prospective workers who can then be trained for a particular job. This is a sensible approach and one in which I have personal experience while running a metal fabrication shop.

The article emphasizes that in-house training and apprenticeship programs have steadily declined over the last three decades throughout the entire manufacturing industry. My view on this trend is that manufacturers need not make their training programs so formal. In-house training and apprenticeship can effectively be accomplished simply by posting new hires under the direct supervision of more experienced workers who can watch them and guide them.

The most important qualities of new hires is that they are willing and have the aptitude. Willingness is more important than anything. Manufacturers need to look for willingness and aptitude in prospective employees and then hire them and train them and cultivate that willingness and treat it like gold.

Solution number 3: The article makes it clear that focusing solely on the workforce needs of today is not a long term solution and that we need to pay attention to the next generation by getting them interested in manufacturing. The youth of today should be exposed to manufacturing “in a fun, engaging way” so the manufacturing skills gap can be overcome today as well as in the future.

Ever since the 1970s, young people have witnessed the decimation of our manufacturing infrastructure and it is no wonder that few of them would even consider a career in manufacturing. Their trust would have to be regained by following the lead of others who could set an example for them. If manufacturing takes a new foothold in America and if young people could see their peers having successful careers, then maybe there would not be as much reluctance on their part as there is today.

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