Thursday, February 23, 2012

What to Do With the Skills Gap?

A recent survey revealed that only 37 percent of respondents
said they would encourage their child to seek a career in
manufacturing. (Photo—Rotor Clip Press Room)

Out of all the elephants in the room that is “American Manufacturing”, perhaps the biggest one is not the economy, nor unemployment, but something that directly ties to both:  the lack of skilled American workers needed to meet the demand of the new global manufacturing standard.  After a full decade of outsourcing patterns as well as a university system focusing its recruitment around  “knowledge jobs” in areas of finance, service and academia, most business communities in the country are discovering that even when they want to pursue labor options at home, the pool is not very impressive at all.  Consider a recent study done by Manufacturing Institute.  Excerpts include:

                        “Overall, our survey findings are remarkably consistent with previous Skills Gap     studies, with 67% of respondents reporting a moderate to severe shortage of available,             qualified workers and 56% anticipating the shortage to grow worse in the next three to five     years. In addition, our survey indicates that 5% of current jobs at respondent manufacturers are             unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates. These results underscore the tenacity of a     worsening talent shortage that threatens the future effectiveness of the U.S. manufacturing   industry.” - Manufacturing Institute, 2011 Skills Gap Report.

Yowsers.  That last part makes an economist want to shove a pencil in his eye.  All the stimulus programs, tax cuts and incentives in the world can't really make up for the fact that if not enough people know the trade, the trade is left undone.

So, in my opinion, we're back to education.  This subject surfaces in mainstream media once a year as everyone blitzes in with their input on how to fix the system, or reform the system, or throw the system away and get all you need to know from Old Fashioned Guy.  Then, after we all realize that real changes to education would mean putting investment into programs and learning development that wouldn't show results for years, we realize our good ol' American instant gratification itch ain't gonna get scratched anytime soon and we move on to bashing Snooki.

But as we see here with a study like this, kicking the can down the street is having a real effect on solving multiple problems in this country right now.  Manufacturing is doing better than anyone else right now, and yet it will not be able to meet its full potential not because some other country is getting unfair advantages, or because our government is squabbling.  No, potential will not be met because none of us are really pushing to pass on the trades.  Consider another report done by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte on the public perception of Manufacturing: 

            While Americans believe manufacturing is of vital importance to the country, they are        reluctant to pursue jobs in the industry.”

                                    -Public View on Manufacturing Report, 2011, Manufacturing Institute, Deloitte

The report goes onto show that in surveys that asked whether they would encourage their child to seek a career in manufacturing, 37 percent of respondents said “Yes”.  More telling is how many respondents state that their local school system encourages its students to pursue manufacturing, 19 percent.

Now we're getting to the root of this.

Perception is always established by the previous generation, and it seems we're back to the same stigma that I've written about on here before. Only according to studies such as this, it seems the stigma has been institutionalized.

If you're asking me for solutions to this, go get me a good publisher and I'll work on a good five years of research to do so.  The truth is there are tons of pathways to take.  One that did interest me somewhat lies in what Korea is doing to address issues in their much-ballyhooed school system.  Consider this article from Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post:

                        “South Korea’s government has decided that too many people are going to college. It is      working to restore the luster of a high school diploma as a stopping point for some and to         establish a vocational track for others.”

                                    -Fred Hiatt, Washington Post

Obviously different cultures call for different measures, but as the article goes onto state, huge investment by families into their children learning “knowledge occupations” when trade jobs are in demand not only puts a wear on the family's income, but it also greatly diminishes the priorities that culture puts on trade jobs altogether.  If this is an issue we're dealing with as a nation, perhaps the solution lies in closer cooperation between corporate communities and their local technical and vocational schools.  I always thought the Army did such a good job recruiting off campuses and neighborhoods because an ROTC program has a direct result it can point to:  if you do this, you will end up like that guy you see on the commercial, or saluting the President as he walks into the Rose Garden.  If manufacturers can find a way to make their livelihoods more apparent and attractive as an alternative to the kinds of jobs a BA, MFA or MBA demand, they may find themselves tapping into an undiscovered demographic.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.