Closing the Skills Gap

"Everybody talks about the weather," said editor and essayist Charles Dudley Warner, "but nobody does anything about it."

Like a lot of people, I have often lamented the sorry state of our public schools, with particular regard to the lack of practical workplace training. Much of the joblessness plaguing our land today is the result of a skills gap. Too many of our unemployed lack the requisite skills to fill jobs that need filling, especially in manufacturing.

Japan has the same problem, producing too many college graduates without practical skills, but Japan also has 57 colleges of technology, collectively called Kosen, that produce about 50,000 graduates each year from a standard five-year program. The students are required to spend time in an actual workplace, integrating abstract subjects such as algebra with the use of cutting edge machinery. And wonder of wonders, local businesses are involved, contributing to the curriculum which is regularly updated in response to changing technologies and workplace needs. On average, each Kosen graduate can expect at least 20 job offers.

If we had that kind of a system today, U.S. manufacturing would be much more competitive and unemployment would be much less than it is. While there has been emphasis on strengthening community colleges by the president, there has not been sufficient focus on improving technical and manufacturing skills.

Fortunately, the private sector is stepping into the vacuum created by government's lack of leadership. The Dream It! Do It! Program (DIDI), developed by the Manufacturing Institute, which I helped to found some years ago, is steadily expanding throughout the country, with a focus on states with major commitments to manufacturing. The DIDI programs, now in 23 communities, are diverse, reflecting their regional orientations, but they all work with local public schools, community colleges and local businesses to attract bright young people into careers in manufacturing. They take young people into real factories where they can see advanced manufacturing technology in action. Through DIDI, they learn about the opportunities in modern manufacturing, and acquire the skills they need to work there.

The Institute also has launched a Manufacturing Skills Certification System through which unemployed and transitioning workers can validate their skill sets by earning a National Career Readiness Certificate. The certificate gains them access to 16 weeks of focused training in machining. And best of all, manufacturers are waiting in the wings with real jobs for them once they establish their qualifications.

Manufacturing by itself cannot solve our jobs shortage, but the Institute has set a goal of certifying 500,000 manufacturing workers over the next five years. That strikes me as doable, and that would make a significant dent in unemployment. President Obama has praised the Manufacturing Institute's efforts. It is clearly on the right track.

Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements.