Manufacturing New Talent
By Mark Kleszczewski
Despite stubbornly high levels of unemployment, many employers continue to face a shortage of workers with the right skills to take on new jobs that have been created over the last few years. The problem is particularly acute in advanced manufacturing, where skilled talent is needed to innovate and accelerate R&D and production cycles, which are required for staying competitive in today’s fast-paced, global economy.
In the 2011 Skills Gap Report produced by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, more than 80 percent of manufacturers report they cannot find people to fill their skilled production jobs, negatively affecting their ability to expand. As a result, there are approximately 600,000 manufacturing jobs open right now in the United States. Based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the National Association of Manufacturers estimates that filling these open positions would also result in more than 400,000 additional jobs created and an increase in GDP of 1.03 percent.
Demand for skilled workers is ramping up, due in large part to the recent resurgence of the oil and gas industry, the “reshoring” of some jobs back to the United States and rebounding consumer demand for autos, homes and other goods nationally. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the high-tech and manufacturing businesses are having the most serious recruiting difficulties, followed by the construction, mining, oil and gas, professional services and finance and health industries. Welders, machinists and industrial machine mechanics are in particularly high demand, especially in the Southeast and Gulf Coast regions.
Compounding the issue is the wave of retiring baby boomers leaving the workforce in growing numbers each year. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a significant decrease in the primary working-age labor force from 2010 to 2020, while the Society of Manufacturing Engineers even projects a possible shortfall of up to 3 million jobs as early as 2015.
The actual number of open positions may vary, but the good news is that several types of initiatives — from proposed new federal legislation to customized, fast-track training programs and greater employer involvement — are making a dent in the manufacturing skills gap across the country.
For advanced manufacturing in particular, the needs of each business may be different, but to create a steady pipeline of workers whose skills match the needs of today’s industry, it also means having to a better job partnering with educational institutions, supporting portable, standardized credentials, creating apprenticeship programs and getting involved in nonprofit workforce coalitions.
Right Skills, Right Now
“Manufacturing is definitely where I see the biggest skills gap right now,” confirms E.J. Daigle, dean of robotics and manufacturing, Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, Minn. “One of the main areas where we’re currently having trouble meeting industry demand is in the maintenance and mechanics of automation. What’s even more of a problem than the automation side is in advanced CNC machining, especially with tool making.
“Part of the trouble is negative media coverage about manufacturing jobs, especially when news reports lump together industries that need highly-qualified technical people with low-skilled assembly work that gets sent offshore,” Daigle continues. “But it’s really the opposite — we have way more high-skilled manufacturing jobs than we have graduates.
“Unfortunately, even though manufacturing is booming, it’s still tough to convince kids who’ve never taken a modern metal shop, machine shop or CAD class that a practical, two-year technical degree is every bit as good as a four-year degree,” he continues. “There’s still a stereotype that a four-year degree is better, even though it’s more expensive, will take you longer to complete, and doesn’t mean that you’re any more marketable in the workplace.”
To overcome this challenge and address the current shortage of CNC operators, the school was one of the first in the country to offer the Right Skills Now certification and fast-track manufacturing training. Graduates from the program — which includes paid internships and 18 weeks of intense study — earn a nationally portable, industry-recognized National Career Readiness Certificate, which prepares them to become entry-level manual and CNC machine tool operators.
Over in northeast Iowa, new investments and programs are being created to bolster a strong talent pool that’s well-versed in several industries.
“Historically, the Cedar Valley region has been a diverse center of manufacturing and already has a skilled manufacturing workforce in place, especially in the fields of agriculture equipment, food production, industrial equipment, automotive supply chain and textiles,” says Steve Dust, CEO, Cedar Valley TechWorks and the Greater Cedar Valley (Iowa) Alliance & Chamber. “We’ve also been very fortunate to have firms here that have been keeping up with the leading edge of advanced manufacturing processes and technologies.”
“To keep that going, we’re taking advantage of our higher education institutions and K-12 partnerships to meet the needs of our core businesses in the region with a full spectrum of talent development,” Dust says. “We’re also building programming and facilities like the 30-acre, Cedar Valley TechWorks campus in Waterloo that will continue to not only build our manufacturing talent base, but also encourage further entrepreneurship and business development in the area.”
In additional support of TechWorks’ research, development and education resources, funds from the Iowa Economic Development Authority will also help the University of Northern Iowa and its advanced manufacturing laboratory purchase a 3D printer for cutting-edge fabrication of on-demand molds.
Another region very proactive in setting up manufacturing training initiatives is the I-39 corridor running through northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
“Many of our local manufacturers throughout the corridor are working with some really creative, cutting-edge technologies. There’s tremendous knowledge that can be accessed here because of the R&D activity that occurs in our market,” says Eric Voyles, executive director, I-39 Logistics Corridor Association. “Productivity enhancements can be made by investing in machinery and equipment, but we still need individuals programing and servicing that machinery, so we’ve been busy adding new types of training to meet the needs of our local employers.”
Recently developed workforce programs and resources include: Kish CareerLink,, a web-based career-exploration and planning tool linking schools with local industry; TechWorks, a manufacturing-training facility providing customized fast-track CNC machine operator classes; and Rock Valley College’s high-tech robotic assembly line of the type used by Chrysler to build the Dodge Dart plant in nearby Belvidere.
Voyles also points to the success of the Joint Institute of Engineering and Technology — Aerospace (JiET-A) as an example of a real-world initiative that’s aimed at reducing a chronic shortage of engineers, scientists and technicians sought by more than 200 local aerospace companies.
“The JiET-A program aligns our communities’ educational institutions for the benefit of our aerospace companies,” Voyles says. “The program develops interest in high school and then offers a combination of internships, mentorships and scholarships and widens the workforce pipeline for Rockford’s aerospace industry.”
Employers Upping Their Game
“There can be a huge disconnect with all of the many workforce efforts out there, which are often happening in silos, so there’s a big advantage for employers to get involved in groups like the National Skills Coalition and Business Leaders United,” says Scott Ellsworth, vice president of U.S. operations, Tipco Punch, Inc.
“Companies and their needs are all very different, but I encourage my peers to get involved and cooperate to make sure we have a good workforce,” Ellsworth says. “We know that good workers are out there, so it’s our responsibility to not just to fix our own issues, but to help train people so that they’re employable. If we as employers don’t drive that change and say what we want, then all we’re doing is allowing the problem to continue to exist.
“When training programs are sector-based and created in partnership with employers, they’re much more effective than just having workers and groups hoping that they’re hitting the right talent expectations,” Ellsworth says.
Good for Workers, Good for Business
Although the nation’s existing workforce is aging and low-skilled jobs are likely to never return to the United States, advanced manufacturing is on the upswing and driving educational establishments, employers and communities to work together more than ever. Providing marketable, sector-specific skills that manufacturers need isn’t always easy or inexpensive to implement, but reducing the current skilled worker shortage pays off in the long-term.
Ellsworth points to employer “co-opetition” through targeted apprenticeship programs and participation in employer-driven groups like Partners for a Competitive Workforce, as successful models for upgrading workers’ skills and increasing retention of manufacturing employees. “They work because as employers we’re defining the skills needed and are helping to make sure that money is being spent on the kinds of training that allows us to actually hire people,” Ellsworth says.
“Creating training opportunities and growing a bigger pool of skilled workers not only meets the needs of our local companies, but also accelerates our overall competitive advantage,” Voyles says. “As we build up our talent capacity and take the workforce question off the table, people have a reason to stay in their local community and companies can locate here because this is the right place to do it from a business perspective.”
For complete details on the organizations featured in this article, visit:
Dunwoody College of Technology (Minneapolis, Minn.)
Illustration by ddpavumba at Free Digital Photos.net