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Skilled labor shortage is hurdle for manufacturers

  Manufacturing has been America’s "signature" since the Industrial Revolution, when machinery, factories and, eventually, mass production became our hallmarks and inventiveness, innovation and ingenuity were our trademarks.

  Financial pundits, business leaders and government officials past and current assert that manufacturing is this country’s economic engine and serves as the catalyst for prosperity. The sector spurs demand for everything from raw materials and intermediate components to software and services of all kinds. Studies and statistics show that manufacturing significantly impacts the widespread creation of jobs-and wealth.

  And it’s not just the experts and the data that recognize manufacturing’s importance. A 2010 national study of Americans sponsored by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte found that more than 78 percent of respondents said manufacturing is very important to our economic prosperity. Similarly, 76 percent saw manufacturing as critical to our standard of living and 65 percent said the sector is important to national security.

  Despite the value placed on U.S. manufacturing, its influential "signature" currently is not a bold flourish but a shaky script. Yes, the worst economy since the Great Depression and years of job losses to low-wage countries have been devastating. But as the economy shows signs of a comeback, it is manufacturing that has led the way in the rebound, and there is a growing recognition that outsourcing of jobs overseas will decrease as these formerly "low-wage" countries build their own middle-class populations.

  These are positive trends, but a number of experts are far from optimistic. The reason? Manufacturers simply cannot find the skilled labor needed today to handle the kinds of sophisticated production processes required on the shop floor.

  This is a remarkable contradiction. Companies cannot find workers in an economy still reeling from months of double-digit unemployment rates. Yet research and real-life scenarios support what for many is counterintuitive. For example:

  • The 2010 Manpower Talent Shortage Survey revealed that among the most difficult U.S. jobs to fill today are those in the skilled trades, including welders, electricians, carpenters/joiners and related occupations.
  • A recent CBS News segment reported that the number of open manufacturing jobs had doubled in one year to 227,000, yet many are not filled because of a shortage of skilled workers.
  • A PBS "NewsHour" report in December noted "an unfilled demand for highly skilled, highly educated personnel in the manufacturing sector."
  • The state of Pennsylvania predicted a shortage of 15,000 to 17,000 workers in precision manufacturing and industrial maintenance over the next decade.

  As more baby boomers retire, the problem is expected to accelerate dramatically.

  Why is manufacturing facing this remarkable problem? A confluence of factors is at work. First, there is no doubt that manufacturing has an image problem, especially among younger people. Unfortunately, the old stereotypes of backbreaking labor and grimy working conditions persist. Ask people today what they think of manufacturing, and most will probably describe dirty, dangerous work that requires little thinking or skill and offers minimal opportunity for personal growth or career advancement. This is totally inaccurate.

  Today’s manufacturing jobs are "cool" and appealing. Workers are now required to be experts and operate the most sophisticated equipment in the world. They can cut steel with lasers, water jets and plasma cutters and can program robots to paint, package and palletize products. Computer programming and other high-tech skills are needed, which dovetails precisely with what younger people love these days; these jobs can be more fun than many service-sector jobs.

  For now, youths remain unconvinced. A national poll of teenagers underscored in a major way teens’ disinterest in manufacturing and working with their hands. The poll showed that 52 percent of teens have little or no interest in a manufacturing career and 21 percent more are ambivalent. When asked why, 61 percent gave as a reason the desire for a professional career; that far surpassed other reasons such as pay (17 percent), career growth (15 percent) and physical work (14 percent).

  Reinforcing this mind-set is American adults’ disinterest in the manual arts. Another national poll revealed that America has become a nation of "non-tinkerers," with 60 percent of adults avoiding major household repairs, opting to hire a handyman, enlist a relative or contact a property manager. Some 58 percent said they have never made or built a toy, and 57 percent said they had average or below-average skills for fixing things around the house.

  Young people essentially have no role models when it comes to repairing things themselves or taking pride in building something useful. It’s no wonder that so many teens dismiss the idea of a career in manufacturing.

  Education today rarely portrays manufacturing as a preferred career choice. The U.S. Labor Department reported on this trend a couple of years ago, stating that "too few people consider manufacturing careers and often are unaware of the skills needed in an advanced education environment. Similarly, the K-12 system neither adequately imparts the necessary skills nor educates students on manufacturing career opportunities."

  From a broader perspective, when you consider that only three-quarters of all U.S. students who start high school graduate, a concerted effort to raise graduation rates becomes even more important, so more students leave high school with skills that make them employable.

  These perspectives were reinforced in a significant way in late 2010 by a national member survey of Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International. When asked how best to improve the skills of new employees, the leading answer, cited by 66 percent of respondents, was "more focus on careers in manufacturing in traditional school systems via curricula, school counselors and other means." This is the same response FMA members gave in 2007 when asked a similar question.

  Asked to rank the academic preparation that future workers should have, 68 percent of these manufacturing executives gave priority to a technical certificate earned at a community or technical college. After that came a high school diploma or GED (52 percent) and specialized industry certification (41 percent). Ranked significantly lower were associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.

  The manufacturing sector is not entirely blameless here. Often focusing on their own financial challenges, many companies have done little to help develop skilled workers.

  Some executives also have acknowledged that in-house apprenticeships, training programs and internships diminished during the economic downturn, even though they are extremely beneficial. Apprenticeships encourage prospective young employees to enter manufacturing. Students who intern can learn valuable skills and often become full-time employees upon graduation. Manufacturers have fallen short in offering these programs.

  Attracting the next generation of workers to manufacturing is the goal of the Gold Collar Careers initiative in Wisconsin, established by a consortium of companies, trade groups and educators. Taking the message about manufacturing to young audiences also is a goal of the Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs organization. NBT provides grants for a number of summer manufacturing camps across the country that expose junior high and high school students to math, science and engineering principles as well as many facets of manufacturing technology.

  Companies should invest time and money to reach out to specific individuals already considering manufacturing careers. Advanced Technology Services recruits young workers while they are in high school or a technical school. The initiative employs students as interns and then, after graduation, hires them full time and puts them through an intensive training program.

  Campaigns and programs that showcase the career opportunities and wage potential of manufacturing can help change young people’s minds-if they hear about them.

  In one of those national polls, parents were asked if they would support their children becoming factory workers. More than half-56 percent-said they would recommend a career in manufacturing or another kind of industrial trade.

  It is welcome news that so many parents are willing to support their children in this career path, but a significant amount of work remains to be done: 44 percent of parents are not supportive. The industry needs to convince them, their children and the public that manufacturing is an honorable and fulfilling career.

Gerald Shankel is president and CEO of Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International, a professional organization based in Rockford, Ill., with more than 2,100 members.

3/11/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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