According to The Economist, the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. fell at a fairly steady .4% each year from 1948 to 2008. Between 2010 and 2018, it has only fallen .3%. Some of those years the number of manufacturing jobs actually increased. In fact, a government report in summer of 2018 told us that in the preceding 12 months, the manufacturing sector added 327,000 jobs — the most since 1995.
Manufacturing is still a pale shadow of its former self. It contributes just about 11.6% of the GDP and 8.5% of the nation’s jobs, down from 30% a century ago.
Nonetheless, manufacturers are confident. Almost 93% of U.S. manufacturing companies expect growth next year, and the proportion of smaller manufacturers expressing optimism has nearly doubled, according to recent surveys by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).
Finding qualified workers continues to be the biggest challenge for manufacturers. The Skills Gap is alive and well, in spite of schools’ efforts to increase STEM instruction.
One reason seems to be that students who are successful in STEM training tend to leave their home communities and go to areas already rich in STEM talent. Another is that STEM in schools hasn’t been as successful as we’d like; several studies have found that STEM programs don’t in fact lead to higher math skills or more STEM majors in college. One of the main reasons for this could be the focus on assessment in schools. “No Child Left Behind” doesn’t encourage higher level thinking. Combine this with the average level of STEM background among teachers and you may have a recipe for mediocrity.
NAM CEO Jay Timmons still sees schools as the solution. “We have to have a fundamental restructuring, re-calibration of our education system from start to finish in this country,” he told the Washington Examiner.
Other observers call on industry to make an investment in training, something manufacturers in general have resisted. Government, industry, and education will probably have to chip in together to make any headway against the Skills Gap.
Fortunately, manufacturers aren’t discouraged.
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