By Bekhi Spika
© gearstd / Adobe Stock
Over the past few years, U.S. manufacturers have been facing a steadily growing shortage of skilled workers. A recent study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute predicts that “the U.S. manufacturing sector is likely to suffer a shortfall of 2 million workers” by 2025—a marked increase from the 600,000 jobs that went unfilled in 2011. 1 With 2.7 million Baby Boomers expected to retire from manufacturing jobs over the next several years and economic growth expected to create another 700,000 jobs, clearly there will be plenty of work available for upcoming graduates.
The problem, though, is that even though 70% of Americans view manufacturing as the most important industry for a strong economy and national defense, and despite the fact that 90% of all manufacturing jobs have medical benefits with average salaries over $77,000 per year, new graduates don’t want those jobs. In fact, one recent survey, “Gen Y (ages 19–33 years) respondents ranked manufacturing as their least preferred career destination.” 2
With these challenges in mind, how can the manufacturing industry bulk up its skilled workforce?
REMIND KIDS THAT MANUFACTURING IS “SEXY”
Because of the enduring widespread misperception that manufacturing is stuck in the early 1900s (with dangerous working conditions, dirty environments, and career instability), fewer “than 5 in 10 Americans surveyed believe manufacturing jobs are interesting, rewarding, clean, safe, stable, and secure.” 3 That image, however, is far from accurate:
“Today’s U.S. factories aren’t the noisy places where your grandfather knocked in four
bolts a minute for eight hours a day. Dungarees and lunch pails are out; computer skills
and specialized training are in, since the new made-in-America economics is centered
largely on cutting-edge technologies.” 4
Because manufacturing companies create new products either directly from raw materials or from components, this means bakeries, candy stores, and custom tailors are all part of that industry. Today’s manufacturing workers encompass more than machinists and welders. The sector’s ranks include sewists, medical appliance technicians, jewelers, dental laboratory technicians, water treatment workers, and employees in many (many!) other fields.
If the United States wants to retain its title as the leading manufacturer of the world, the manufacturing industry must figure out how to attract people who want hands-on, innovation-focused positions that don’t require them to sit at computers all day. Above all, manufacturing is a skill—and in some instances, it’s an art. So it’s high time the industry update its public image.
REACH OUT TO KIDS AND WOMEN
Because one of the best ways to build a person’s interest in something is to introduce him or her to it at an early age, the manufacturing sector needs to focus energy on fostering the talents and interests of students in more technical industries as soon as they begin school. Identifying such interest early on makes it possible to filter them into robotics clubs or welding clubs as soon as they’re in middle school or junior high.
In addition to promoting the industry through plant tours and scholarships, manufacturers need to encourage high school kids who want to work with their hands to pursue technical diplomas instead of standard college-prep diplomas. (Of course, this strategy works only in districts that offer a technical diploma track in high school; many do not.) At the same time, manufacturers need to encourage educators to build both high school and college curricula that offer certifications in different marketable skills to prepare them to enter the workforce. These graduates
would then be well prepared to fill roles in areas that the Baby Boomers are vacating, such as machining, operating, craft working (e.g., welding), distributing, and other technical fields.
Additionally, the industry should double (if not quadruple) its efforts to promote adult women in manufacturing. How many women who stayed home to raise families later seek to enter (or reenter) the workforce once their kids have grown? How many women enjoy working with their hands but are stuck behind computers all day? Many women resign themselves to jobs that are not challenging and offer little to no advancement opportunities because it doesn’t occur to them to pursue work in certain fields—such as manufacturing—that have been traditionally viewed as male-only domains. But women are just as capable as men of being great welders and assemblers, and if they had opportunities to learn those skills in local continuing education classes or certificate programs, they could easily take over the manufacturing industry.
CHANGE TECHNICAL DEGREES INTO STACKABLE CERTIFICATIONS
In most U.S. high schools, the default path for students is to take a certain number of courses in math, science, history, English, etc., in order to be prepared to enter a four-year degree program in college. But this curriculum caters to a demographic that learns best in a lecture-based, academic setting—and ignores the demographic that can rewire light switches at home but receives Cs and Ds in the usual school subjects. High schools keep churning out many students who excel at hands-on work but will go to college for a year and then drop out because 1) they still hate history class and just aren’t wired for academia, 2) they don’t want to end up sitting behind computers at desk jobs, or 3) they don’t see the point in earning four-year degrees when increasing numbers of recent college graduates are either underemployed or working in areas unrelated to their degrees.
The nation needs to train this segment of its young workforce quickly and without unnecessary academic classes. Although earning a “well-rounded education” is admirable and certainly helpful in some situations, people who attend technical colleges are looking to gain technical skills. They want hands-on experience and certification in specific trades. They want to focus their effort and time on gaining the knowledge required to perform specific duties, so get rid of the one-year certificate programs and two-year diploma programs, and instead offer stackable credit courses that help students quickly achieve industry certifications at community colleges (and often lead directly to employment). These students shouldn’t have to spend time on biology, Spanish history, or other fields that aren’t relevant to the certificates they want—especially when their technical training makes them hugely attractive and marketable to an industry that is desperate for skilled workers.
WHAT IS BEING DONE TO CURB THE SKILLS GAP?
Some states and schools are already launching innovative initiatives. In San Antonio, for example, local manufacturers and the Alamo Community Colleges have developed a program with “an industry-driven curriculum” for high-school students who want to acquire “work-ready skills in manufacturing.” 5 Participants earn both high school credits and college credits, as well as certain industry certifications.
The federal government, too, is taking action. In 2013, for example, the U.S. Department of Labor funded a four-year program in Montana to address the skills gap. Called the Strengthening Workforce Alignment in Montana’s Manufacturing and Energy Industries (SWAMMEI) project, the goal of this endeavor is to “create cost-effective training programs, accessible from anywhere in the state, that link low-skilled workers with jobs that enhance our manufacturing and energy workforce and bolster the state’s economic opportunities.”6 One of its objectives is to integrate industry-recognized credentials (e.g., American Welding Society certifications) into the traditional college curriculum.
As technology continues to evolve and the demographic of the manufacturing workforce keeps shifting, the industry will need a skilled workforce that can adapt to the changes on the horizon. Every year brings new challenges and opportunities—and if the industry hopes to thrive, it needs people who can meet them successfully.
Bekhi Spika is the current director of sales and marketing and former safety officer at Spika Design & Manufacturing (www.spikamfg.com). Her experience in navigating safety guidelines and her in-depth knowledge of Spika’s design capabilities enable her to guide clients through all aspects of the manufacturing process,
from design to delivery. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Craig Giffi et al. 2015. “The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing: 2015 and Beyond.” Deloitte
3. Craig Giffi, Michelle Drew Rodriguez, and Sandeepan Mondal. 2017. “A Look Ahead:
How Modern Manufacturers Can Create Positive Perceptions with the U.S. Public.”
The Manufacturing Institute website, www.themanufacturinginstitute.org/Research/
4. Rana Foroohar and Bill Saporito. 2013. “Made in the USA.” Time online, April 22, business.time.com/made-in-the-u-s-a/.
5. Tom Morrison et al. 2011. “Boiling Point? The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing.” The
Manufacturing Institute website, www.themanufacturinginstitute.org/~/media/A07730
6. 2013. “SWAMMEI Grant Project [overview].” Montana University System website, mus.