Four Possible Solutions to the Manufacturing Skills Gap

Today we have a guest post from Steve Norall at Cerasis. Check out their great blog at http://cerasis.com/blog/

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the percentage of manufacturing workers aged 55 to 64 years and the share of workers older than 65 years have both significantly increased since 2000. Moreover, the Department of Labor reports that the median age of the manufacturing workforce rose from 40.5 years in 2000 to 44.1 years in 2011. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers aircraft engineerpredicts that the shortfall of skilled factory workers could increase to 3 million jobs by 2015 due to the aging manufacturing workforce and the resulting retirements of older workers, at the same time that an anticipated manufacturing rebound will increase demand for skilled workers. In my first two posts on the manufacturing skills gap I first talked about what is the skills gap, giving a simple definition and the landscape, and in my second, I spoke about if there really is a skills gap in manufacturing. They are great first reads to better understand the following possible solutions.

In all of my reading on this subject, I have uncovered some key solutions for solving the manufacturing skills gap. I implore you to read through these, think about them, and leave a reply in the comments below or on social media, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, or Facebook your thoughts and other possible solutions. Do know that I don’t have all the answers to solve this issue, no one does completely, but we must talk about them. Awareness to addressing the future of manufacturing, on any subject, is vital in order to move forward.

Solution #1: Innovation and Perception of Manufacturing

For years the perception of manufacturing was that it was an “Unglamourous” and “dirty job” reserved for the uneducated and low skilled worker. However, I personally have seen first hand from visiting several manufacturing facilities throughout my career as a sales man of services and products to make manufacturers more efficient, the evolution of a dirty factory, to a high technology, clean place to work. However, perception is everything, and this perception are keeping millennials and future generations away.

I read a recent article on Salon.com about millennials and manufacturing, titled, “Manufacturing jobs: Millennials aren’t into that“. I found this paragraph in the opening very striking, and perhaps indicative of a real manufacturing skills gap, not due to perhaps low skills, but because a manufacturing job simply doesn’t appeal to future workers:

“Just this past week I heard another report that said that the construction industry is booming but construction workers were lacking. The gentlemen being interviewed said these workers were ‘either dead or retiring.’”

The article then addresses WHY there is a perception problem with the author bringing back memories of his father and their fathers that manufacturing jobs are rigid, where you have to clock in and out, you do work, only get a 15 minute break, and that from day-to-day, things don’t change much, which doesn’t appeal to the Gen-Ys or millennials who are used to a world of constant change of technology and innovation all around them. Thanks Apple! I kid….

In fact, I think Apple has done a great job of making manufacturing look cool. Although, in a recent article on MoneyNews, it seems as though those “cool” jobs of designers or engineers at the “Factory-less” Apple here in America, DON’T get counted as manufacturing jobs. I believe this will one day be reclassified by the Bureau Of Labor Statistics, but many manufacturers will have to really invest in innovation and marketing over the next few years in order to act like an Apple, and appeal to future generations of workers.

Solution #2: Education Outreach

Manufacturing innovation and technology change very quickly, and manufacturers have invested considerable amounts of money into technology over just the last year.  This is evidenced by a recent report coming from ThomasNet.com’s Industry Market Barometer® (IMB) research. More than half  of the 1,200 manufacturers surveyed (55 percent) grew in 2012, and nearly two-thirds (63 percent) expect to grow this year. They credit their people, brands, technology, and innovation as the assets that are helping them to compete. In fact, nearly seven out of ten (67 percent) will introduce new or innovative products/services this year alone. That’s a lot of technological advancement

But a closer look at the findings reveals a “disconnect” between the growth of these manufacturers, and their lack of urgency when it comes to bringing in fresh talent to carry them forward. The survey respondents mirror today’s manufacturing workforce, which is heavily populated by employees who are 45 and older. With Generation Y projected to make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2025, manufacturers need a collective “succession plan” to maintain their momentum.

One such solution presented by many is education outreach by manufacturers to local high schools, vocational schools, community colleges, and universities. By building relationships with school leaders and instructors, companies can shape programs to ensure relevant skills are being taught to future workers. These types of relationships can offer the potential for direct recruitment of the highest-quality talent.

Beyond working with leaders, another possible solution that exists to build up the skills of the talent pool are relevant apprenticeships to the curriculum at these schools. As said in the two previous blog posts on the manufacturing skills gap, it is vital that the next generation of workers move beyond hearing about

Solution #3: Investing in Training (By Both the Job Seeker AND The Manufacturer)

Once the talent comes through the door, companies need to prepare them for success. Training and educating employees internally is key. Many of the barriers to developing a healthy pipeline of dedicated, skilled workers to bridge the manufacturing skills gap in the sector lie in perceptions. Employers who view labor as capital – and capital that is worth investing in – will view money spent to train their employees as an investment rather than an expense. Notably, as evidenced by this blog post in the New York Times by Paul Downs, titled “Why Training Workers Costs More Than You Think,” training requires substantial and possibly prohibitive costs to employers; this is where job seekers must be willing to assume part of the training costs as well by enrolling in training programs at their own expense.

However, manufacturers should take the lead on this training, by looking into cross-training, having true collaboration tools to hear the wants and needs of their workers, and foster a culture of continuous improvement in order to retain workers, but also move the manufacturing company forward by positioning themselves for future innovation by having a workforce’s mindset ready for self improvement and growth.

Solution #4: Manufacturers Need to take The Proactive Steps and Go Get the Talent, Acting Like…..China?

At a manufacturing conference in February held by The Atlantic,  called “Manufacturing’s Next Chapter,” , David Arkless, the President of Corporate Affairs and Government at The Manpower Group argued that there are ways to solve this problem if the U.S. has the willpower to act. Arkless stated that other countries throughout the world don’t have the sort of skills gap the United States does. “It’s because they have developed an integrated system to forecast the skills they need down to the man hour level, the competency level they need,” Arkless said, “and they’ve gone back to the education system and they have prepared young people to want to go into

jobs that are going to be needed in the future.”

The gist of what Arkless is saying, that no matter how large the skills gap is or isn’t, most young workers don’t even know there is a skills gap and these jobs are available in the first place, let alone the training they need to get those jobs.

As an example of a place that’s taken aggressive and intelligent steps, Arkless gave the example of Tianjin, China.

“The Chinese economy is forecast to grow at 6 percent in 2013. The city of Tianjin, which is huge, its economy is growing at 17.9 percent. That’s huge compared to the Chinese benchmark,” Arkless said. “They went out very smartly and asked every foreign company investing in Tianjin, ‘what would cause you to invest more? What would bring you here?’ And the answer from every one of the 2000 companies they surveyed was the right skills at the right cost.” When the city knew what the manufacturers wanted, the city put action into play by offering incentives to youth to attend the Tianjin Vocational University to study, and even guaranteeing jobs at competitive wages after graduation.  The program’s helped Tianjin grow its small and medium businesses by 300 percent over the last 2 years.

The motivation is clear. According to Arkless, filling the manufacturing skills gap could provide a 2.2 percent boost to GDP, which in turn improves the economy, as Reagan knew, the trickle down affect would be enormous.

What Does the Future Hold For The Manufacturing Workforce?

Regardless of how many jobs are unfulfilled due to a skills gap caused by any reason, the most important thing we need to remember: “Times they are a changin”. As business owners, citizens, parents, and friends, we all must invest in each other. Whether that means through listening to the next generations, and not judging them, but guiding them, or investing in your educational community by giving back, in the end, we must act. It’s important to remember that our future, even if we may not be here, is a very important investment to make.



Categories: Smartforce

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1 reply

  1. Having been on both sides of the fence (on-line worker & management & owner), I’ve had the privilege of seeing things first hand from each perspective. The one thing that drove me from line worker to company owner was despite the good intentions and talk (fluff) about doing this and that and this is what we stand for, none of it was actually happening on the shop floor. Having a couple of generations of family who are/were in manufacturing and growing up hearing them talk is probably at the heart of why the new generations DON’T want to work in manufacturing.

    I believe it’s more to do with people, how they are treated (appreciated), and do they have a sense of pride and value in what they are doing. Is management communicating this? are they sharing the vital importance of the role that these employees play in the success of the company, are they giving back to their workers? Are they giving them purpose and involving them to put forth ideas to improve the product, processes or work environment?

    Here’s an example. A company offers a bonus for employees who capture defaults in the product or materials, or process. This default, if let pass will either result in a defect for the client or if caught in another area of the production cycle the repair is now more costly and it interrupts the production sequence.
    Now, if I provide an incentive for this act, if I set a culture of reward in exchange of finding these defects I will immediately capture the eagerness and attentiveness of many employees. What about giving these people credit for going above and beyond?……. What about giving them a % of the cost savings? Imagine a company that someone working for $32,000/yr on the line could double their salary by finding several defects that year, what if your employees came to work knowing that not only will their contribution add to making a great company and a great product, but that they and their families will reap the rewards of going above and beyond.

    The alternative is that a company just expects their employees to do this, there is no reward or appreciation for going above their specific role/process, and the good deed is quickly forgotten. Further, in these factories, the culture doesn’t allow for a line worker to challenge or question his/her work, or process or drive change for the better. Their idea’s are often masked as causing trouble, or being difficult or plain out right called a bad employee, belligerent and so forth – Just because they question the status quo.

    Now If I was a younger generation coming into the work force and I heard my parents or family talking about this type of work environment…….. Maybe I would consider my choice of career a little more carefully.

    What I am getting at is that this is not a standard story that a manufacturing laborer can share. Maybe it’s because there has been a lack of appreciation and a lack of credit for the great work these people do, maybe it’s because as people spend any length of time in these roles, they see that how they are treated is usually a disconnect from what their CEO or upper management talk about in the press and corporate communications.

    At the heart of the issue regarding a skills gap or lack of manpower comes down to the same issue that a company has when they are lacking sales…… the question to ask is WIIFM (whats in it for me), why should people want to work for you Vs. another industry or competitor? I think the real issue is that companies don’t offer a good enough work environment to attract the best people, to attract enough people, to attract the right people. Harsh words, I know, but the evidence is that those same people are working in other industries, in other companies working in better opportunities.

    I don’t think there are easy solutions or its a one size fits all approach to resolving these problems but in the end if your not creating a work environment that people WANT to work in, a company that people WANT to work for……. do you really need to wonder why you can’t attract and retain people?

    My 2 cents…. stop looking at your employees as a cost of production and start looking at them as assets and brand ambassadors, and invested drivers of change for future success.

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