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Industry groups address worker shortage problem

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It may be a surprising scenario to many, with unemployment at the high level it is, but manufacturers can’t find enough workers.

Manufacturing is experiencing a situation that is likely to become worse as millions of Baby Boomers approach retirement.

workers in hardhats

As many as 600,000 jobs are unfilled, according to estimates by The Manufacturing Institute’s 2011 Skill Gap Report. In addition to open positions, the Department of Commerce reported in May 2012 that manufacturing had added almost 500,000 jobs since 2010.

What is causing this disconnect? One factor is the common perception among young people that manufacturing jobs are physically difficult, repetitive and mindless. The actual fact is that many high school graduates lack the basic skills needed to work in today’s plants.

Manufacturing jobs built and sustained many a local economy in this country. Despite automated processes relieving much manual labor, this employment has come to rest lower on the social scale than the more desirable clean hands and mental labor of white-collar jobs.

There are misconceptions here because many so-called “blue collar” jobs require advanced technical skills and specialized learning. Many manufacturing jobs are among the highest paid in a number of places – witness the auto industry and paper making.

Modern manufacturing, in actuality, has evolved into a highly technical industry dependent upon productivity and innovation. Despite the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs moving overseas in the last decade, the United States is still the largest manufacturing economy in the world, responsible for 20 percent of worldwide production.

Manufacturing supports one in six private sector jobs, and the average annual wage is $74,447, 15 percent higher than average earnings outside the industry, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. Benefits are better, too. Three out of four manufacturers provide both health care and retirement plans, compared to 55 percent of other sectors.

Growth and a critical need for employees are taking place in the pharmaceutical, medical device, aerospace, defense and metal fabricating sectors, according to the Society for Manufacturing Engineers.

The most critical work force shortages are in skilled production, engineering and scientists, according to participants in the Skill Gap study. These positions are reliant on what is called STEM education – degrees and advanced learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The skill shortfall is affecting many critical areas, including innovation, quality improvement, productivity and production levels, the Skill Gap said. So-called soft skills are lacking, too. Many manufacturers are focused on redesigning and streamlining production, and as a result, problem-solving skills are a key need.

Industry associations are focusing on reversing the skills shortfall and boosting manufacturing’s profile among young people. The National Association of Manufacturers has funded the Skills Gap and public perception studies through its Manufacturing Institute. From that work has come a concrete plan to certify 500,000 workers over the next five years.

The certification plan builds layers of “stackable credentials,” starting with core courses in personal effectiveness, basic academics, workplace skills and industry-wide technical competencies. Working with partner associations, the National Association of Manufacturers has so far developed technical certifications in welding, production technician, machining and engineering technology.

Other courses are in development. The curriculum is offered through state technical college systems, and 17 states are currently participating. A 16-week fast-track program, Right Skills Now, has been designed and is available in Minnesota.

The U.S. Manufacturing Pipeline is an online employment site providing assessments and links to jobs and education. The National Association of Manufacturers plans to target unemployed veterans and, thinking 20 years into the future, is also creating programs to improve early childhood education in key skill and personal development areas.

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers has made work force development an industry focus area, and has educational offerings ranging from company-based training to individual certifications.

ToolingU, created by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, is an online training site that can be customized to fit specific training curriculums. Industries served include aerospace, machining, automotive, heavy equipment, medical parts and energy.

The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International is also taking a leadership role in addressing work force issues. The mission of its foundation, Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs, is to “engage, nurture and excite individuals of all ages in the pursuit of careers in manufacturing” The foundation offers scholarships, camps and contests as well as education and career information.

The Manufacturing Institute’s public perception study revealed that over 80 percent of Americans agree that manufacturing is important to our economic prosperity and standard of living, but only 33 percent would encourage their child to pursue a manufacturing career.

The efforts of industry associations to promote production jobs and education as interesting, challenging and viable could not be more timely to our country’s future.