Where Have All the Technicians Gone? Addressing the Manufacturing Skills Gap

Many in industry have been heartened by recent trends showing increased growth in the manufacturing sector. Although there’s still a long way go, even the smallest shifts toward recovery are reasons to celebrate.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the upward trajectory we’re on has the potential to turn what is now a mere inconvenience into a real nightmare. Specifically, the skills gap manufacturing entities have been dealing with in recent years, if not resolved, is likely to become an un-crossable chasm in the face of a real and lasting recovery and growth.

To be even more blunt: Our nation must address the manufacturing skills gap right now if we desire a future in which manufacturing companies can actually afford the labor they need, and if we care at all about bringing fill-able jobs back to the U.S.

The question, of course, is how?

To this point in time, the conversation about the manufacturing skills gap has largely focused on its origins rather than its solutions. According to Derek Singleton who covers the manufacturing industry for a website called Software Advice, most of us understand that how we got here is a combination of three factors:

  • The retirement of the baby boomers.
  • Shop floor automation that has increased the level technical skills required.
  • Young people who are no longer inspired to pursue careers in manufacturing.

While the first two causes are self-explanatory, the third deserves a closer look because it relates directly to the history and legacy of manufacturing in the U.S.

In the past, a technical education was easy to get. Not only did manufacturing companies provide in-house training and traditional apprenticeships, but schools also played an integral role by offering shop classes.

Today, shop has disappeared from the high school curriculum completely and, with it, the chance to excite the next generation about manufacturing in general. Further, the in-house programs once deemed so essential have been on the decline since the late 70s, often because of budgetary constraints, and despite proven value to productivity.

What’s critical at this juncture is moving away from analyzing what DID happen to taking action toward what SHOULD happen next.

Thought leaders in manufacturing and government agencies have all suggested ways to solve the manufacturing skills gap problem. Some of these ideas would ensure a technically capable future workforce and some would provide skilled technicians right now.

Here is just a sample of the proposed solutions we find most provocative:

  • Teaming with Community Colleges and Technical Schools: These institutions are perfectly set up to deliver a skilled workforce immediately. Derek Singleton reports that there is an extensive network of schools that already partner with manufacturing firms to teach needed skills. The next step is simply strengthening those partnerships and encouraging more of them.
  • Investing in Potential: Experts have made monumental leaps forward in figuring out how to measure a job candidate’s potential and his or her likelihood of success on the job. The most effective employees are not necessarily those that walk in the door with the required skill set, but those who demonstrate the greatest aptitude for that skill. While how to train these employees would still be an issue, the cost savings that comes through identifying the right employees from the get go are significant.
  • Inspiring Innovation: Talented, skilled workers today are looking for more than a salary and benefits from their employers. They want purpose and vision. The lack of innovation in manufacturing affects industry’s ability to attract top talent of all kinds. By nurturing innovation, U.S. manufacturing would not only be working toward reclaiming its leadership position globally, but would also be laying the groundwork for securing and retaining a more skilled and motivated technical workforce.

Clearly, some good thinking has been put against solving the manufacturing skills gap problem in U.S. manufacturing, but it’s only the beginning. We are nowhere near full implementation and, in many ways, we’ve barely entered the beta phase of testing any solutions at all. In reality, we need to generate more ideas and also create momentum around them.

As a manufacturer, how are you responding to the skills gap?

What solutions do you think are most viable in solving the issue?

Most importantly, what are your ideas?

We invite you to share your thoughts and solutions with us in a comment to this post – no matter how out of the box or untested they may be. After all, the best ideas usually start with impractical thinking and we look forward to the discussion.

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