America’s Most Wanted: Skilled Workers

By Gerald Shankel , president and chief executive officer of Rockford, Ill.-based Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA), a professional organization with more than 2,100 members working together to improve the metal forming and fabricating industry. For more information, visit

Should anyone consider a manufacturing career amid media reports of shuttered factories, job losses and the worst economy since the Depression? Although certainly counterintuitive, the answer to that question is a resounding yes! Despite the shaky economy, scores of American manufacturers are reporting a dire need for skilled labor.

Industry surveys reinforce this claim. According to the 2009 Manpower Talent Shortage Survey, among the most difficult jobs to fill in North America are those of the skilled manual trades, with electricians, carpenters/joiners and welders as the most in-demand employees.

In addition, an October 2009 report issued by the Manufacturing Institute, Deloitte and Oracle cites that among companies involved in skilled production (whose employees are machinists, craft workers and technicians), 51 percent report shortages and see increased shortages ahead.

Although the United States has lost huge numbers of manufacturing jobs to countries such as China, there still are high-paying job opportunities for skilled workers in the sector here. As more and more baby boomers retire, the problem is only expected to accelerate.

The looming skilled-worker shortage is an unwelcome threat to the nation’s manufacturing base, which needs to be addressed at multiple levels—from better educating the next generation of factory workers to improving the public’s image of plant work.

Manufacturing’s image problem
There’s no doubt that manufacturing has an image problem, especially among today’s youth. A national poll of teenagers underscored in a major way teens’ disinterest in manufacturing and working with their hands, and how the educational system ignores this arena as a viable career option.

The poll, sponsored by Nuts Bolts & Thingamajigs (NBT), the foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA), showed that a majority of teens, 52 percent, have little or no interest in a manufacturing career, while another 21 percent are ambivalent. When asked why, a whopping 61 percent said they seek a professional career, far surpassing other concerns such as pay (17 percent), career growth (15 percent) and physical work (14 percent).

One major reason kids don’t pursue careers in the skilled trades is the simple fact they are not introduced to them anymore. In the past, high school students could take a shop class and get a feel for working with tools, but today most don’t have that chance.

Also, factory conditions have changed dramatically, yet many of today’s youth are unaware. The old stereotypes of backbreaking labor and grimy working conditions persist, yet that’s far from the truth. Ask people today what they think of manufacturing and most will probably recite a perception of a dirty, dangerous place that requires little thinking or skill from its workers and offers minimal opportunity for personal growth or career advancement. It’s absolutely critical to change this mindset and show young people how manufacturers have modernized, embraced new technologies and involved workers in management and product development.

A nation of ‘non-tinkerers’
American adults, too, may be a root cause of disinterest among American youth to fill jobs in the industrial arena. Another NBT poll revealed that America has become a nation of “non-tinkerers,” with 60 percent of adults avoiding major household repairs, opting to hire a handyman, enlist their spouse, ask a relative or contact a property manager. And, 57 percent state they have average or below average skills at fixing things around the house. This means young people essentially have no role models when it comes to repairing things themselves or taking pride in building something useful.

Yet the survey also offers some hope that parents could influence their children to think about manufacturing work. The poll reveals parents actually would support having a young factory worker in their family. More than half, 56 percent, would recommend their child pursue a career in manufacturing or another kind of industrial trade. Knowing so many parents will back their children in this career path is truly welcome news. When America recovers from its economic downtown, it will be vital to inform the nation’s youth about the available opportunities.

Manufacturing opportunities abound
The manufacturing environment is changing in terms of needs, opportunities and the talents required. Most of the fastest growing manufacturing jobs today require advanced knowledge and skills, but many in the available workforce lack these proficiencies and the educational background.

Technology is expanding exponentially throughout the industry, from design and production to inventory management, delivery and service. Manufacturing positions today include exciting work with lasers and robotics. The introduction of CNC machine tools has changed the nature of the work of machinists. Now, a machinist has to be computer literate and understand basic electronics and physics.

In addition to manufacturing demand, demographic factors contribute to the looming employment crisis. The average age of a worker in today’s skilled workforce is 56 years old. The baby boomer generation of skilled workers will retire within the next 5 to 15 years, creating the need for an estimated 10 million new workers by 2020.

Manufacturers, trade groups, educators and media must work to respond to this challenge. Industry associations are one group stepping up to the plate. In March, for example, NBT partnered with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship to launch a national pilot program of summer manufacturing camps.

In 2010, 16 NACCE member community colleges throughout the United States hosted NBT summer manufacturing camps targeting youth at the critical level of junior high and high school, exposing them to math, science and engineering principles, and industry technology, as well as basic entrepreneurship. Camp participants use technology to create a product from start to finish, providing them practical manufacturing experience in 3D design, CNC programming, welding, machining and more, while learning product creation, problem solving, entrepreneurship and team building. Visits to area manufacturers provide an up-close look at products being made as well as career advice and inspiration from the entrepreneurs who run the companies.

NBT also issues scholarships to students at colleges and trade schools pursuing careers in manufacturing. In 2010, approximately 20 scholarships were awarded to students across the country. Other organizations are working on improving the image of manufacturing as well. For example, the Weld-Ed National Center for Welding Education and Training offers summer camps, specifically for girls, focused on welding skills. And the National Association of Manufacturers is working to attract young people to manufacturing through its “Dream It. Do It.” campaign.

Reaching educators is key to improving the future skilled workforce. Education priorities today rarely position manufacturing as a preferred career choice, and high school counselors and principals often fail to realize that manufacturing is a viable option for students. Thus, today’s youth just aren’t aware of the skills needed in an advanced manufacturing environment and the careers available.

Partnerships between local manufacturers and educational institutions will encourage more people to enter the field and to employ more skilled workers in plants and factories. Manufacturers should consider opening their doors to field trips for local elementary and middle school classes, as well as Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. Ideally, a young, energetic worker will lead a brief tour of the plant. When students see a clean, modern facility full of sophisticated machinery, it will fascinate them and leave a lasting impression. If more companies partner with schools and youth organizations and arrange factory visits, the word definitely will spread.

Employers should foster ties with education officials in local communities and be willing to invest in people. Manufacturing equipment suppliers should consider donating equipment to local trade or vocational schools to support manufacturing courses. Manufacturers also should advise instructors and counselors at community colleges or high schools on job opportunities available and in curriculum planning.

“Manufacturers should reach out and be more active in their communities,” said Dr. Chris Kuehl, FMA economic analyst. “Manufacturers aren’t terribly active in Chambers of Commerce or professional associations or with their local universities and colleges.”

States, schools and businesses should consider addressing the shortfall in skilled workers directly through vocational training and workforce development programs. One such initiative was recently launched in California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled the “I Built It-Youth” campaign, a statewide effort to begin training California’s future skilled workforce to help rebuild California’s infrastructure.

Another example of a successful workforce development program is The Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ partnership with Project Lead The Way, creating more than 250 Gateway Academies that give young people insight into the value of math, science and teaming.

Another strategy to attract the next generation of workers is a concept employers have used for centuries—the apprenticeship and its cousin, the internship. Their value has never been so significant and appreciated; young people are exposed to the exciting opportunities in manufacturing while companies have a chance to recruit, evaluate and hire needed employees. Companies also should tap the knowledge of their aging workforce as these highly-skilled workers can play a training role both within and outside an organization.

All of the campaigns and programs described here can help change young people’s minds about manufacturing—if they hear about them. We must constantly inform the media about all of these exciting initiatives with energetic public information campaigns, work with them to help tell these stories to the public and convince young people dream jobs are there for the taking. Young people need to know that there is a high demand and great future potential—including the opportunity to own and operate your own business—that comes with a career in the skilled trades.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018