Cooperative Networks Are Avenues for Skilled Talent Development

Students-MachiningDeveloping local and regional cooperative networks that promote the education, training, certification, and placement of qualified workers is one way of addressing manufacturing's need for skilled labor. Shop owners, educators, equipment manufacturers, and OEMs that establish such coops will go a long way toward recruiting and developing employees for the skills necessary to keep their employers competitive in the machining and metal fabrication business.

This is the message that emerges from the recent series of ThomasNet News machining articles on the skills gap -- the seeming lack of qualified workers for manufacturing jobs.

Depending on with whom one speaks, the skills gap exists or doesn't or is at least self-perpetuated. In a previous article, Peter Cappelli, professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said there are plenty of employees for machine shops and metal fabricators to be hired - and, most important, trained.

But Cappelli said most employers are reluctant to invest in training. "The big shortfall is in hands-on skills, which only employers can provide," he told ThomasNet News in an article earlier this month.

But there are companies doing something about it. In the first article of the series, the human resources director of Fives Cincinnati, a major machining systems OEM, discussed the lack of candidates for manufacturing jobs in northern Kentucky and southern Ohio, where the company is based. William Weier said there are 680 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the region, adding that openings could reach 6,250 in 10 years. Since 2007, Fives Cincinnati has been running a four-year apprenticeship program that gives students on-the-job training by day and lets them attend college classes at night for associate degrees and state certifications in electrical technology, machining, mechatronics, and related disciplines.

Fives Cincinnati's approach can be considered unusual in North America, where manufacturing apprenticeships are seen as relics of the industrial past. But they could be rebounding. Recently, the Obama administration announced new efforts to reestablish manufacturing apprenticeships in the United States.

North of the border, Unique Tool & Gauge, a moldmaker and machine shop, is working with the Ontario Youth Apprentice Program, a Canadian government initiative, to train students at its plant. As highlighted in the second article of the series, the company wants to establish its own apprenticeship program to fill a key business area that needs skilled labor: automotive molds. The need for employees "hasn't affected our ability to get business," Darcy King, Unique's president, CEO, and owner, reported, "but could eventually affect company growth."

The remarks from Cappelli, Weier, and King and comments from manufacturers who participated in ThomasNet's annual Industry Market Barometer survey all suggest that the question of whether a skills gap exists is irrelevant. What matters most is that manufacturers, almost to a company, maintain it is difficult to find qualified workers. And with Baby Boomers retiring in growing numbers, the need to replenish the skilled labor force becomes more acute each year.

Which is why manufacturers need to follow the lead of other industries and develop networks to educate and train workers, and it must be an ongoing process that can be adjusted to meet evolving needs.

There are national organizations that provide a multitude of training courses for manufacturers - for example, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. But local and regional groups are generally more effective at organizing companies large and small and involving schools, OEMs, and state governments in programs that make immediate impact on needs.

Years ago, the first industry I reported on was retail floor coverings. Storeowners faced challenges that centered on how effectively their employees sold products that, in most cases, looked similar and were usually discounted. As a result, local organizations that stressed salesmanship were formed. (Rule No. 1: Never greet a customer with, "May I help you?" A simple "no" from her ends the conversation and, quite likely, the chance for a sale.)

There were dozens of floor covering associations around the country, as well as regional and national organizations. All of these groups promoted sales training, business operations, new products, cooperative (with manufacturers) advertising, national and regional markets, and other activities. They made retailers savvier and more profitable.

Similar networks of local and regional organizations that represent machining and complementary manufacturing would be beneficial in promoting the technical training that schools and colleges need to develop students for manufacturing careers, lobbying state agencies for support, developing meaningful apprentice programs, creating skill set certifications, and involving machining equipment OEMs and other businesses in the recruitment, training, and ongoing supply of skilled workers.

This would require commitment from members -- many of whom may be competitors -- and from industry organization leaders. It is a lifetime effort, one that needs constant tweaking to stay relevant.

It also requires companies to invest in training workers continually. This is especially important: machine shops can't wait for someone else to do it. The return, when weighed against the cost, will more than justify the expense and materialize when one shop has the talent ranks necessary to raise competitiveness and grow the business while another shop fades into obscurity.

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