Making the case for training American workers

PF Digital Dispatch

When the downturn ends and manufacturers are ready to bring on more workers, will there be enough qualified people to hire?


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When the downturn ends and manufacturers are ready to bring on more workers, will there be enough qualified people to hire?

A 2009 survey by the National Association of Manufacturers, the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte found that most manufacturers are concerned about the skills shortage facing the U.S. when the economy begins to noticeably rebound.

The survey reported that 32% of manufacturers believe there is a "moderate to serious" skills shortage. The answers varied widely by sectors:

  • 63% of aerospace and defense companies and 45% of energy firms said there was a "moderate to serious" skills shortage, said such a shortage existed.
  • But only 2% of automotive manufacturers said there was "moderate to serious" skills shortage.

While the U.S. Commerce Department reports that 126,000 jobs have been added since January—or about 6% of those cut during the current recession most manufacturers are reporting that the new hires are not exactly performing the same tasks as before, therefore requiring new skill sets.

In essence, companies have retooled the way they make their products, which in turn requires a higher-skilled employee.

"It's not just what is being made," David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the New York Times. "But to the degree that you make it at all, you make it differently."

That comment led to the Times' opinion: "During the recession, domestic manufacturers appear to have accelerated the long-term move toward greater automation, laying off more of their lowest-skilled workers and replacing them with cheaper labor abroad."

Not so. It appears that the recession—while causing massive layoffs as companies struggled to survive—also made manufacturers leaner. They found that seven employees on a shift might be able to do the job it once took 10 to do. Automation and technology have made manufacturers sit up and take notice about how they staff, how they operate, and more importantly, how they hire their next generation of workers.

Manufacturing leaders say the reason they are worried about a shortage of qualified workers in the coming years is because baby boomers will start retiring soon, further troubling a dwindling supply of workers with adequate skill sets who can walk in the door and run an automated machine or be able to adapt to advanced technology.

For example, about 30% of Ohio's manufacturing workers will be eligible for retirement by 2016.

"The new worker of tomorrow is in about sixth grade," John Gajewski, executive director of the advanced manufacturing, engineering and apprenticeship program at Cuyahoga Community College in downtown Cleveland tells the Times. "And they need training to move into manufacturing."

That may be easier said than done. In a different survey done by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute survey, 71% of Americans viewed manufacturing as a national priority, but only 17% that were parents said they would recommend a career in manufacturing to their children.

The research shows that manufacturers offer high-paying jobs and rewarding careers in an environment that should no longer be viewed as dead-end jobs that are easily cut during hard times. The task for the manufacturing industry is to close the gap between perception and reality.