Recently, four workforce boards in central Illinois completed several studies on projected regional workforce shortages. While initial studies highlighted the clearly defined shortages in the health care industry, a second round of research recently was completed that focuses on "knowledge technologists" and their importance in the evolving regional 21st century knowledge economy.
The research included a number of interviews, surveys, and focus groups of local economic development leaders and manufacturing, engineering, and information technology companies. This researched confirmed what many in our region have come to suspect: manufacturing remains the largest employment sector for much of the region. Several key technology clusters have also emerged with existing strengths or promising futures. They include biotechnology, technology support, advanced materials, transportation technology, financial services, advanced manufacturing, and transportation logistics.
Economic development and industry insiders noted the distinctions among the traditional industry sectors and industries are beginning to blur as a result of the evolving global economy. Outsourcing has much to do with this. Much of what used to be done in the traditional manufacturing sector is now done in the services sector. Economic experts predict manufacturing production is becoming a commodity. Value added will continue to move away from manufacturing to activities associated with design, engineering, marketing, servicing, and organization of products. As a result, a commitment to technology and innovation is key to sustaining competitiveness and productivity growth.
Knowledgeable observers in several globally competitive manufacturing and engineering companies expressed serious concerns that existing skill shortages in manufacturing and supporting industries, combined with the impending retirements of many experienced workers, present regional employers with major workforce challenges. These companies stress the importance of grooming a new generation of technologists and technicians to replace the soon-to-retire generation of workers now employed. Interviews with senior officials at 10 leading central Illinois companies, combined with an Engineering & Manufacturing Occupations Survey response, produced the following conclusions:
Machinists-including highly proficient equipment diagnosticians and maintenance workers-were in shortest supply now, and the expectation was that this shortage will grow in future years.
Mechanical engineering technicians, electrical and electronic engineering technicians, industrial engineering technicians, environmental engineering technicians, and electromechanical engineering technicians followed in close order.
Many employers consider newly trained engineering technicians/technologists to be highly interchangeable. Cross-training and flexible workplace requirements are erasing the distinctions among the occupational classifications.
These technician occupations pay well, and pay scales are rising. Median pay for some of these technician/technologists occupations ranges from $30,000 to $60,000 in central Illinois.
These new workers will need much higher skill levels and proficiencies in new technologies. Peter Drucker calls these new workers "knowledge technologists." These knowledge technologists will include technician occupations in civil engineering, electrical and electronic engineering, electro-mechanical, environmental engineering, industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical, drafters, engineering, and mapping. They also will require two to four years of post-high school education with professional certification.
Presently, our region and nation are falling short in the production of engineers and engineering technicians. Shortages of critical skills can lead to the further outflow of jobs and opportunities and have a negative impact on our regional economy. Creating increased numbers of knowledge technologists to meet projected needs will be a significant challenge for our region, state, and country for years to come. IBI