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Manufacturing: Attacking the Skills Gap

"The number one concern right now is finding skilled people"

CNC manufacturing cutting operation with bridge crane

In its 2011 “Skills Gap in Manufacturing” report, the Manufacturing Institute laid out the situation: as American manufacturing continues to expand, a lack of critical skills in the workforce is becoming an increasingly common limitation. In many places, we see classified ad pages full of jobs for skilled positions like CNC machinists, high-volume assembly technicians, welders, or electricians. With a reported 600,000 unfilled jobs in the manufacturing sector, it’s something that has to be addressed.

Certainly, lower-cost foreign labor is still a drain, but there is little manufacturers can do about that. What can manufacturers do?

The gap exists in many industries. While there is typically no lack of applicants for a variety of open jobs, there seems to be a lack of qualified, high-potential applicants. As manufacturers and distribution companies cope with this, what are some things they can do?

  • Realize “The Apprentice” isn’t just a television show:  In the past, when demand for manufactured goods was more predictable, the tradition was one of looking to the long term. Manufacturers funded and promoted apprenticeship/training programs for the long term.  There are of course issues with this, as employees trained and brought up on a company’s dime aren’t necessarily bound to that company in a competitive labor market. And for many companies who need skilled tradespeople now, looking to the long term may seem like a luxury. But if the trend continues (and it seems that it will) these types of programs must be considered.
  • Partner with public education and economic development groups: In many states, public vocational schools work hand-in-hand to help develop training programs. For instance, CareerTech in Oklahoma partners with private enterprise for adult and career development. Manufacturers can help specify a curriculum for their workforce, and also help shape what high school students are taught at technical school programs.
  • Take a hard look at automation: While it’s not possible or desirable to automate every job, finding ways to remove labor hours that do not add value is critical. Can certain tasks be done by robotic automation? (Which is getting less expensive every year).  Can increasingly sophisticated programming, vision systems, and effectors help close the gap? Obviously, the material handling issue is critical, as it absorbs so much of the expense and time in any industrial operation. Finding ways to automate it, or the most apt parts of it, is critical. Many manufacturers turned to robotic welding years ago. Many others are moving toward picking, packing, assembly, and palletizing. Not only can automated systems reduce the need for hard-to-find skilled employees, they can also help reduce costs and fight inexpensive, offshored labor.
  • Partner experienced tradespeople with younger ones – particularly in the “retirement” window: The demographics of this situation can be discouraging. We lack skilled labor now, and a large portion of the current pool is nearing retirement age. This means that manufacturers are watching their most experienced and knowledgeable employees move toward retirement in growing numbers. One way to help alleviate that concern is to Bridge the gap between these seasoned older workers and their replacements before that knowledge can walk out the door.
  • Consider modern training options such as video on demand, online, and more. Today, we have access to technology that was unavailable even a decade ago. That means there are opportunities for lower cost training in video and online that weren’t available before. One such example is Tooling University.
  • Look at younger workers: It’s paradoxical that while we lack specific, skilled workers, that the current unemployment rate is high in many parts of the United States. Many manufacturers require experience that these workers do not have and often cannot acquire. It’s difficult to hire unqualified workers, but many companies are simply trading employees back and forth with other companies, while the skilled labor pool continues to shrink. If you believe a person has a strong work ethic and a desire to learn, add those types of candidates to your hiring pool. Yes, some will use you to learn a skill, and then walk. But not all of them. It’s ultimately the responsibility of employers to retain talent. If your on-boarding process is good and you’re competitive, you’ll retain enough to make it worthwhile.

So, what’s next?

Many economists believe that we are going to see stronger, long term growth in the American manufacturing market, due to the underutilized labor pool and particularly due to energy costs and dwindling advantages for overseas production. If that’s so, finding ways to staff up in cost effective ways is critical. What are some of your ideas?

Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.

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