How to fill the skills gap

Author Christopher Tate
January 03, 2022 - 03:45pm

Finding and hiring manufacturing employees in today’s job market is difficult at best. Just getting someone to submit a resume is difficult, let alone getting someone who has some relevant experience. Add machining, welding or programming to the list of skills required by applicants, and the search starts to approach impossible.

Demand for qualified people continues to outpace supply, leaving many companies with an abnormal number of open positions. No question that the workforce shortage is a multifaceted problem, but the underlying issue is that this country simply does not create enough skilled people to fill the demand because our society does not appreciate the value of craftspeople.

We have to change the way this country views careers in manufacturing. Toward that end, there is good news: There are steps we can take to change America’s perception of manufacturing careers. To fully appreciate the impact these steps could make, however, let’s first recap how we got to this point.

How We Got Here

Sometime in the early 1980s, in the quest to maximize profit through cost reductions, American manufacturers began offshoring work to so-called low-cost countries. Offshoring activities meant that companies needed fewer toolmakers, machinists and skilled assemblers. Naturally, the demand for skilled craftspeople declined. At that time, there were still many skilled folks in the job market, which helps explain why the need to educate future craftspeople was not apparent. As the demand for skills flattened, the cost of apprenticeships and other training programs could not be justified. Without sufficient demand, vocational education programs and apprenticeship opportunities dwindled.

The government needs to provide facilities and teachers for a basic curriculum that teaches math and technology skills in a classroom setting.
The government needs to provide facilities and teachers for a basic curriculum that teaches math and technology skills in a classroom setting.  A Cutting Tool Engineering image

Compounding the impact of offshoring was a societal belief that everyone must go to college if they are to be upwardly mobile in our economy. Universities, politicians, the educational system and hiring requirements all contributed to the misguided notion that college is the best pathway to success.

Universities publish self-serving data about graduates’ earning potential that leads to debt that can smother them for years. Politicians promote college-for-all platforms and present them as the foundation for a utopian society. High schools have closed vocational programs where students are introduced to the trades. Instead, schools have opted to focus on test scores and college acceptance rates.

Keep in mind, though, that our political and educational leaders were merely responding to the hiring environment created by U.S. companies. The fact is that most jobs at manufacturers do not require a university education, yet a lot of companies have degree requirements for jobs that do not make sense.

I was the advanced manufacturing engineering manager for a large manufacturer of gas turbines. My engineering team designed manufacturing processes for the most critical components and was responsible for creating parts that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Success required having a team of very smart, creative people. There were 10 people on the team, and only three had degrees. Of those degrees, only one was in engineering. The rest of my team had associate degrees from trade schools or were well-trained and seasoned. The most valuable people on my team, degree or not, were talented machinists or welders before they were manufacturing engineers. That company granted me a lot of freedom to hire talent and did not bind my hands with degree requirements, and that allowed me to build a team of machinists and welders capable of delivering significant cost reductions and an entire year without scrapping a single part.

Now What?

Given the decadeslong life of America’s current perception of manufacturing careers, there are a number of steps we need to take.

We need to shake off the everyone-must-go-to-college mindset by shifting our hiring practices. Having a general business degree and $100,000 of debt from a state college is not a recipe for success. We need to carefully consider the skills needed for success at a manufacturing company and provide a pathway to those skills that doesn’t involve a four-year university. By eliminating degree requirements for jobs, we not only increase the pool of job applicants but make it possible for young people to enter the workforce and begin adding value to the economy sooner.

Government and industry must work together to solve the problem. Industry cannot sit back and expect state and federal governments to solve this on their own. Our leaders in government need to admit that current policies are not working and begin to embrace different ideas. Politics and rhetoric create an environment where we cling to programs and regulation that are ineffective and prevent industry and the education system from being nimble. Being nimble allows leaders to assess programs and change direction quickly when desired outcomes are not achieved. Business leaders and educators need the ability to experiment with new ideas without being burdened by bureaucracy.

The cost of a vocational education needs to be shared by business, government and individuals. It’s no more reasonable to expect taxpayers to absorb the entire cost of a vocational education than it is to expect industry or students to bear the cost. The expense of a vocational education needs to be shared. The government needs to provide facilities and teachers for a basic curriculum that teaches math and technology skills in a classroom setting. Companies need structured budgets that support paid training and education so that there is no pressure to have fully productive apprentices, students and interns. Student performance should be evaluated with a universal set of standards, and students should be held accountable when standards are not met.

Whether we take these steps or find some other solution, it is imperative that we resolve the workforce shortage and skills gap. Our competitors in other countries still have apprenticeships and traditional vocational education programs based inside factories where the real work is done. If we do not act, our economic status in the world will continue to slip.