“This makes no sense to me! How is this possible?” I thought to myself as I heard the latest update from our HR department on the progress of Excel’s expansion plans. We were in the midst of the largest expansion project in our history. We were launching new products, global sales projections were strong, new buildings were going up, millions of dollars were being invested to purchase the most advanced manufacturing equipment available… but we had a problem. We could not find applicants with the required knowledge, skills and/or experience to operate this equipment. The kicker: We were in an economy with a prolonged, record-high unemployment rate!
The problem wasn’t caused by a lack of promotion or advertising for the open positions, nor was it due to a lack of people coming in for interviews. The problem was a major gap between candidates’ skillsets and the skills needed in our workforce. Across the country, the need for highly-skilled manufacturing workers is greater than ever, yet fewer individuals are getting the training required to fill these open positions through a “traditional” education. As a nation, we are facing a growing disconnect between job creators, educators and other workforce development resources. Let me highlight some contributing factors:
- Budget cuts over the past decade have prompted a mass exodus of vocational programs from our high schools. In fact, today, it is growing increasingly difficult to find a school that still offers these once-valued programs, and the few that do struggle to find teachers with the qualifications to run them.
- Reforms such as “No Child Left Behind” have created an educational system with the myopic view that every child is college-bound—period. The perception that a college degree is a prerequisite for a successful and productive career is widespread, and fortunately, not accurate in real life.
- Several decades of accelerated outsourcing by U.S. companies to low-cost countries like China have created the perception that America doesn’t manufacture anything anymore. That misguided perception has led many to believe that a career in manufacturing is a dead end.
So, why would anyone want to pursue a career in manufacturing? And why allocate already-scarce educational resources to support the development of skills for advanced manufacturing?
Why? Because there is, without a doubt, a renaissance in American manufacturing fueled by rising wages in China, our relatively low power costs and the demand for U.S. exports. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group projected that by 2020, the United States will add between 2.5 and five million new jobs in manufacturing and related services. Currently, manufacturing companies across America are struggling to find the skilled workers they need, and finding them is going to get a lot more difficult. The average age of a skilled worker in America today is 57, meaning that we are about to lose a large percentage of an already insufficient workforce to retirement!
The evolution of policies and public perception over the past 20 years has unintentionally created a huge hole in our workforce. We do not have the pipeline of human resources to meet current, much less future demand for skilled manufacturing workers, nor do we have a coherent, national plan to fill it. Today, we face a serious problem, but in five to 10 years, we will have a crisis… unless we do something now.
Our region has a golden opportunity to become one of America’s premier, advanced manufacturing centers. In order for this to happen, though, we must clearly identify the unique assets we already have and leverage them. We must build bridges between job creators, educators and workforce development resources to align our plan for skills development with the specific needs in this region. We must fill the pipeline of skilled workers to meet current demand and give companies confidence to grow and expand. When we accomplish these goals, we will see new companies drawn to the region, creating more jobs and expanding our productive capacity. Let’s get to work! iBi
Doug Parsons is president and CEO of Excel Foundry & Machine Inc.