Industry Market Trends
Manufacturing Skills Gap an Education, Branding Problem
November 19, 2012
The shortage of skilled manufacturing workers is growing more severe, and many manufacturers are being forced to scale back their growth plans. Eileen Markowitz, president of Thomas Industrial Network, explains that the skills gap stems from a lack of proper education and public misperception of what modern manufacturing work entails. More than three years after the official end of the economic recession, the United States labor market is still struggling to recover. Although job growth has picked up modestly, the unemployment rate remains at close to 8 percent and more than 20 million Americans are either out of work or underemployed. However, there are also 3 million job openings in the U.S. today, with approximately 500,000 unfilled positions in the manufacturing sector alone. The persistently high number of open jobs indicates that there is a shortage of workers with the necessary education, skills and training needed to meet the demands of the manufacturing workforce. This skills gap has become a pressing issue for industrial companies, many of which rely on complex, high-tech production processes. A recent piece in 60 Minutes explored the challenges facing manufacturers in overcoming the skilled worker shortage, and the strategies some companies are using to bridge the gap. "I would honestly say it's probably an entry level problem. It's those basic skill sets. Show up on time, you know, read, write, do math, problem solve," Ryan Costella, head of strategic initiatives at fastener manufacturing firm Click Bond, told 60 Minutes. "I can't tell you how many people even coming out of higher ed. with degrees who can't put a sentence together without a major grammatical error. It's a problem. If you can't do the resume properly to get the job, you can't come work for us. We're in the business of making fasteners that hold systems together that protect people in the air when they're flying. We're in the business of perfection." Manufacturers are working hard simply to find enough employees to replace retiring workers, much less bring new hires on board to support company expansion. Costella has teamed with other manufacturers to develop a training program with local community colleges and bolster the regional workforce. Partnering with educational institutions, particularly community colleges, will be an important part of bridging the talent gap, but additional measures will also need to be taken to create a comprehensive response to the shortage. Eileen Markowitz, president of Thomas Industrial Network, identifies several key factors that are exacerbating the problem, including: a lack of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the U.S.; lack of support for technical and vocational schools; and the public's misperception of manufacturing work, which is incorrectly viewed as low-paying or unskilled, when in reality modern manufacturing can be highly lucrative and requires advanced training. In a recent op-ed, Markowitz outlined her views and made recommendations for what manufacturers can do to meet the skills gap challenge:
When I was growing up, it seemed like everyone believed that United States manufacturers made the greatest products in the world. From our home appliances to our cars, we all chose Made in America products for their quality and their value. No other country put as much pride, innovation, and workmanship into their design, and looking elsewhere wasn't even an option. U.S. manufacturing was a flagship of our economy, and nothing could knock it from its pedestal-or so we thought. Of course, the sentiment has changed since then as the economy has grown more global, and countries like China compete on price. But the pendulum is swinging back-or should I say forward-as Made in America quality once again becomes a status symbol for consumers and a competitive advantage for manufacturers here at home. My company recently conducted a survey of U.S. manufacturers on the growth and outlook of the industrial sector as well as and strategies companies are employing to get there. The findings confirm this transformation. In the end, we heard from more than 1,600 manufacturers, and nearly eight out of ten of them indicated that they expect growth this year. By standing behind their Made in America quality, these manufacturers are even taking back business from the Chinese. They're borrowing a page from the playbook of The Rodon Group of Hatfield, Pennsylvania, an injection molder of small plastic parts. A few years ago, when they sensed Chinese competitors gaining ground, Rodon launched an online "Cheaper than China" campaign to focus on their American manufacturing values. Within two years, their sales jumped more than 30%. These companies never lost sight of the glory of American manufacturing, and now the world is coming to share their point of view. Our research shows that U.S. manufacturers are entering new markets, expanding into new regions, and increasing their exports. With their gears fully in motion, American companies are looking to hire more workers to meet new market demand. And that's where this engine of economic growth suddenly starts to sputter. Our research supports what we are all seeing every day: Despite an unemployment rate of close to 8%, manufacturing jobs are going unfilled. Nearly half of our respondents want to bring in line workers, skilled trade workers, and engineers. But the people who are qualified for these jobs are either untrained, or uninterested. This is a symptom of a larger problem. Despite the resurging interest in U.S. products,American manufacturing is in need of a brand makeover. The Changing Face of U.S. Manufacturing While Americans are proud of the quality of our products, many have a far different perception of manufacturing jobs. They see manufacturing as "dead," lacking opportunities or challenges, and even as dirty or "undesirable" work. They're blind to the reality that today's manufacturing jobs blend design with technology and robotics, and many pay extremely well. With shop classes disappearing, and families and educators pushing students of all abilities toward a bachelor's degree, however, younger generations have no opportunity to be exposed to the rewards of a manufacturing career. Respondents to our survey are vocal about this issue. They stress the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curricula, along with support for technical and vocational schools. One of them notes that we must "get the message out that manufacturing isn't dead in the U.S.; it has just gone high-tech." It's gratifying to hear from individuals like Tracy Tenpenny, vice president of sales and marketing with Tailored Label Products (TLP) in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. Tracy advocated for TLP's sponsorship of a program called Second Chance Partners, which helps high school students to gain manufacturing skills. Many of these students come from challenging backgrounds, and they are at risk of not finishing high school. Through Second Chance, they continue working toward their diplomas while beginning to learn a trade. TLP actually installed a classroom at their plant so that these students can continue their academics there for two hours a day. The rest of the time, they are working at TLP and other area manufacturers. TLP is not only introducing them to a new profession; the company has hired two of these students. Rodon, too, has innovated to develop a solution. The company formed a consortium of about 50 local manufacturers. Together, these firms have approached two-year colleges and trade schools in their area, asking them to send graduates their way. Not only does this help Rodon and neighboring companies to grow; it's a competitive advantage for the schools, who are able to demonstrate a return on their training. In addition, consortium members are presenting at middle schools and high schools to ignite students' interest in manufacturing. These are just two of many examples of manufacturers who are taking the initiative to help their industry make a comeback. Families, educators, associations, government, and businesses are all stepping up. We were gratified to endorse National Manufacturing Day, another wonderful example, with manufacturers opening their doors to students and their families, and associations offering insights and resources to aspiring and current manufacturers alike. U.S. manufacturers, after all, have a passion for their industry. Eight out of 10 of those we surveyed would choose their industries all over again, and they want to share their enthusiasm with the next generation. Great things are possible when bright, ambitious young people have the opportunity to apply skills and knowledge to real-world applications, and contribute meaningfully to the growth of a company, a sector - and ultimately the economic vitality of our nation. To engage this new generation, we must restore - and elevate - the U.S. manufacturing brand.