Closing The Gap: The Future Of The Manufacturing Skills Gap

By Jeremy Rice

The skills gap continues to challenge U.S. manufacturers as they seek to replace an aging workforce, implement new manufacturing technologies, and expand their businesses. With society’s unfavorable perception of manufacturing careers and a nationwide focus on the traditional four-year college education, the skillsets of today’s workforce do not match up well with the hiring needs of manufacturing companies.

The skills gap is a complex issue with many causes and many solutions.  From 1979 to 2015, manufacturing jobs in the U.S. declined from 19.5 million to 12.3 million.  When taking the overall workforce growth over this period into account, the decline is even more dramatic.  More than 6 million of these jobs were lost due to the offshoring of manufacturing operations.  During that same time, national attention grew in focus on the importance of a four-year degree.  Parents, teachers, and guidance counselors pointed students away from careers in manufacturing and towards a college-educated career path.  As fewer and fewer people entered the industry, the existing skilled manufacturing workforce aged, leading to the widening skills gap that has become well known today.

This complex issue requires a comprehensive approach to address the skills gap.  The efforts of manufacturers and related associations, technical schools and community colleges, and government agencies are required, and there are many ways to help.  The biggest overall problem is the public perception that manufacturing careers are not worth pursuing.  This pervasive and negative viewpoint makes it difficult to recruit individuals willing to undergo the skills training necessary for open jobs in the industry.

Changing this public perception is a major task, but grassroots efforts are underway to educate younger students on the benefits of a manufacturing career.  The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International® (FMA) is one example of an organization working to address the skills gap by educating students.  Through their foundation, “Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs®”, they work with schools across the country to conduct summer manufacturing camps for 12-16 year olds.  These camps give students a hands-on opportunity to experience the manufacturing process and to better understand the high-tech career choices that are available in manufacturing. The ultimate goal is to elevate perception into a favorable light at the individual student and school basis, toward creating a pipeline of future manufacturing employees.

Technical schools, community colleges, and government agencies also need to be willing to make investments to properly train students on today’s technologies. The manufacturing floors of today are increasingly sophisticated, and with advancing technology comes the need for additional skills training.  In 2015, with help from an FMA grant, Harper College completed a new $1.5 million metal fabrication lab, furnished with equipment and technologies to train students on the skills needed in today’s environment.  This new facility supports Harper’s Advanced Manufacturing Program, which trains students for high-tech careers, and was awarded a $13 million federal grant to expand its best practices in Illinois.

Manufacturers themselves play a large role in overcoming the skills gap.  As grassroots efforts to change public perception continue, manufacturers need to assess their own training programs to make sure they are maximizing their employees’ potential.  There are investment costs to developing and implementing training programs, but the ultimate benefit is a more engaged and higher-skilled workforce.  DeWys Manufacturing is an example of a company that has developed an internal program to sustain its business through on-the-job training.  In addition to the basic hands-on training that new employees receive, they also offer more advanced training programs in technical skills such as welding and powder coating.  These programs allow employees to take charge of their careers and pursue additional skills that benefit both them and the company.

The manufacturing skills gap will take time to narrow.  There is no single or easy solution.  Through grassroots efforts and investments on the part of manufacturers and related associations, technical schools and community colleges, and government agencies, society’s perception of manufacturing will improve.   This will make it easier to recruit, train, and sustain a manufacturing workforce capable of handling the technologies of today and the future.