The National Association of Manufacturers reports that one quarter of U.S. manufacturers had to turn down business opportunities for one simple reason: not enough workers.
American manufacturing has been suffering from a lack of qualified workers for years. Manufacturing has changed, and now requires more tech skills, which new grads mostly don’t have. American students are coming out of business schools and liberal arts programs with the wrong set of skills for the available jobs. As a nation, we’ve ended up with a lot of overeducated food service workers and not nearly enough industrial engineers.
At the same time, skilled machinists and line workers are retiring, leaving far fewer machine operators on the floor.
Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs have gotten a bad reputation. Parents and high school counselors don’t direct students toward manufacturing jobs as they used to. This is true even though manufacturing jobs often pay well and have good benefits.
The skills gap should be improving by now — but it isn’t. For one thing, STEM education tends to send tech-savvy workers in other directions. For another, it tends to send them to geographic areas with IT jobs and technical college programs, rather than keeping them available for their home-town factories.
Skills gap solution
Training seems like the obvious solution, but employers resist it. High turnover makes the ROI of training programs uncertain. In the 1970s, employees could expect to spend 2.5 weeks training for their jobs. Then they spent the rest of their lives at that company and retired with a pension.
The training investment was worthwhile for both sides.
Now many manufacturers do their hiring through employment agencies and expect a lot of turnover. Employees get a day or two of training.
Fortunately, Virtual Reality tools can speed up the training process, or at least make it more cost effective. Simulations and computer training courses that can be completed at home also help cut training costs.
Apprenticeships and employer outreach programs directed toward high school students help, too.
A combination of these approaches could eventually solve the skills gap.