Manufacturers Seek Methods to Mind the (Skills) Gap

The role of manufacturers must include a mission to empower today’s students to become world-class workers, leaders, and responsible American citizens.   SkillsUSA reports 300,000 career and technical high school and college student members nationwide, are studying careers in the trades and specifically for manufacturing careers. Many more are studying curricula related to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), which often lead to careers in the manufacturing sector.

While the number sounds impressive, it represents a small fraction of the anticipated manufacturing workers.  Business and industry partners help to define the skills and competencies needed to succeed as an entry-level manufacturing employee.  Yet ultimately the technical skills are honed through practice, experience, and mentors on the job and shop floor.  This next generation of manufacturers must navigate industry-designed authentic assessments as well as leadership skills.  Too few students are career-ready, productive, and promotable on the job adding concern about the nation’s growing skills gap that compromises economic vitality and security.

Kelly Persons, SkillsUSA’s director of Business Partnerships and Development, noted, “The U.S. manufacturing sector is the world’s eighth-largest economy and provides more than 12 million jobs, almost all of which require increasing levels of technical expertise and ability to apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”

In this post-recession era, when students are weighing much more carefully the wisdom of student loan debt, are taking a second look at the data supporting the efficacy of a career in manufacturing.  The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) reports that in 2013, manufacturers contributed $2.08 trillion to the economy, up from $2.03 trillion in 2012. This

was 12.5 percent of GDP. For every $1.00 spent in manufacturing, another $1.32 is added to the economy, the highest multiplier effect of any economic sector.

When so many new college graduates are facing unsuccessful job searches, manufacturing supports an estimated 17.4 million jobs in the United States, about one in six private-sector jobs. More than 12 million Americans (or 9 percent of the workforce) are employed directly in manufacturing. Perhaps most enticing to those saddled with student loan debt in the six figures is the fact that in 2013, the average manufacturing worker in the United States earned $77,506 annually, including pay and benefits. The average worker in all industries earned $62,546.

As a source of pride and satisfaction, manufacturers in the United States are the most productive in the world, far surpassing the worker productivity of any other major manufacturing economy, leading to higher wages and living standards. Manufacturers in the United States perform two-thirds of all private-sector R&D in the nation, driving more innovation than any other sector. Taken alone, manufacturing in the United States would be the 8th largest economy in the world.

Farok Contractor, professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School, suggested, “Because American workers enjoy great mobility, U.S. manufacturers hesitate to provide apprenticeships that provide state-of-the-art training.”

Paul Michalicka, wrote for IMPO (Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation) magazine, “Older workers are leaving companies, taking their experience and knowledge with them.  Industry leaders need to examine policies regarding retirement, or early retirement, of baby boomers, and to learn how to attract a new generation of workers. The “brain drain” has already advanced rapidly enough to short-circuit productivity at many companies.  The negative results can be particularly acute in plant maintenance and operations departments.”

Michalicka cites an example of a paper mill, where older employees were encouraged to take early retirement.  Cutting back on personnel, especially those paid at high-level salaries, seemed like a quick way to save money in a downturn.  Machine failures began to spike and downtime was more expensive than the downturn had been.  Most importantly, no one on-site knew how to fix the problems and the mill was forced to seek emergency technical assistance from its manufacturing partners.  In similar cases, some companies have had to hire back their pensioned-off workers as consultants—and at a higher rate than they were paying them when they were regular employees.

Louise Dickmeyer, of People Driven Performance (PDP Solutions), suggested that capturing and retaining knowledgeable working can be achieved through effective employee communications and apprentice-like shop floor training. “Having knowledge captured and accessible on the shop floor is critical to training the next generation of manufacturing workers, while retaining those seasoned professionals who possess the expertise and experience.”

The admonition is reminiscent of the London underground:  Mind the Gap.  Manufacturers who neglect this very real skills gap will find their companies in a perilous predicament, if that is not already the case.

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