Solving the Manufacturing Skills Mismatch

March 5, 2013

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On Feb. 20, a group of manufacturing employers, educators, and trade associations assembled for a closed-door session to discuss the skills gap in an event hosted by recruiting firm Manpower. IMT spoke with event organizers about the strategies emerging to bridge the skills gap and what manufacturers can do to secure talent.

“In the wake of technology advances, the bar has been raised when it comes to the skills manufacturers are seeking in employees. As a result, people with the right skill set are increasingly hard to find,” Jorge Perez, Manpower’s senior vice president, told IMT.

The session was invitation-only, and included Fortune 200 companies as well as small and medium-sized manufacturing businesses across the U.S. Perez declined to reveal which organizations were represented. He did, however, talk at great length about the solutions proposed and debated at the event.

Primary focus was on a series of reports based on a study by business strategist Tom Davenport. The study takes a deeper look at the disconnect between the knowledge and training that young workers are receiving and the skills needed for the positions manufacturers are trying to fill.

According to Manpower, the technician role is the toughest job to fill in the industrial employment market. A technician is expected to “program, operate, troubleshoot, and maintain the increasing number of computer- and network-driven manufacturing devices in the contemporary factory,” the report says.

That includes CNC machines, 3-D printers, robot systems, and other devices that communicate through local area networks. Techs require a blend of skills that make them part software engineer, part hands-on mechanic, and part graphic designer, depending on the specific device and its operation.

The rise of advanced automation technologies is a major reason why American manufacturing is lauded for being more productive and providing better quality goods than its competitors. This, in turn, has created a widening demand-and-supply gap for techs.

How do we replenish the number of techs in America?

While some larger companies have developed their own individual solutions by working with local educational institutions, Perez told IMT that there is no scalable, national model in place to provide the necessary workforce training. At the Feb. 20 session, manufacturers agreed there is “no silver bullet” to the skills gap, but two overarching strategies did emerge:

  • Increase technician-specific training courses, programs, and certifications; and
  • Bolster the image of manufacturing to make it more “glamorous.”
For the first strategy, Perez said, manufacturers will have to get together to share information and develop an understanding of the core competencies required for production work, and build a curriculum around them. Even this, he said, will only provide about 80 percent of the knowledge a tech would need to perform successfully. The remaining 20 percent depends on the specific operations, processes, level of technology, corporate culture, and products manufactured at a given facility, and the onus will be on the employer to provide training on site.

The second strategy is to combat the image of manufacturing as a dirty or dangerous job. Perez explained that the industry has to do “cool stuff” to make manufacturing careers more “palatable” to young people and adults alike.

As an example, Davenport’s report referred to the influence that television programs have on careers. When shows like CSI began glorifying the role of crime scene investigators, there was a sharp increase in university enrollment for forensic science degrees. To create a similar effect for manufacturing, Perez insisted that industry needs to dispel the many misconceptions about modern-day production work.

“The facts are, there are hundreds of thousands of jobs unfilled, with great salaries, and it is safe work,” Perez explained.

Last year, President Barack Obama announced a $1 billion National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. This network of institutes will research and develop new advanced manufacturing technologies, which the president hopes will make manufacturing more attractive to young people.

It’s all for nothing, though, if we can’t fill manufacturing positions in the U.S. According to Perez, innovation and manufacturing have to take place under the same roof. “If you offshore the entire manufacturing plant but keep R&D in the U.S., you lose your ability to innovate because you are not close enough to the process,” he warned.

 

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