Manufacturing and the Skills Crisis

Manufacturers lament the difficulty of finding qualified applicants for vital jobs. For many, it is a bigger issue than energy prices. Modern manufacturing demands a different, more technical skill set than the old industries. Workers must be proficient in math, science, and computers. They must be able to learn and relearn their jobs on a daily basis. A typical manufacturing worker today has the equivalent of two years beyond high school.

We have more than 12 million employed directly in manufacturing with another 6 million in service jobs related to manufacturing. This is an historically low level of manufacturing employment which suggests there ought to be more than an adequate supply of workers. But without the requisite skills many remain unemployed while good jobs go begging. As many as 600,000 jobs in manufacturing are unfilled because of lack of qualified applicants.

This skill shortage will get worse because of the rising retirement rate and the increasing competition for jobs from other sectors. Closing the skills gap can be done by increasing the demand for workers, upgrading worker skills, and increasing the supply of workers who are available. We simply must get our public schools actively engaged in this quest.

First, we have to accelerate our efforts at basic K-12 education reform and improvement. This includes setting standards for and improving the quality of teachers, more professional school management, a more intense focus on core curricula, embracing advanced technology and other innovations, and using charter schools to spur change.

Second, we must revise the curricula of our K-12 schools to prepare young people for real life jobs. We need to look at technology to see how it can bring online education into the classroom in an integrated fashion. Some examples are a classroom tablet that allows students to connect to the internet, model programs, bringing in new content, and use of games where appropriate. EverFi provides online curriculum in areas that ranges from financial literacy, to gender diversity, to entrepreneurship and even STEM related skills.

Third, we need to take a serious look at ensuring that students have the personality traits and the fundamental discipline to be productive employees. The brilliant scholar Eric Chester has outlined these traits in his book, Reviving Work Ethic, including the values of focus and discipline, teamwork, group communications, being reliable and punctual, respecting others, showing initiative, and having a positive attitude.

Our ultimate goal must be to connect schools to the real world. We can employ videos, computer games and robotics but what we really need is a meaningful program of plant and office visits where young people are exposed to real manufacturing in action. Also, we should ramp up the use of internships to give students direct job experience. Our ultimate goal should be to prepare people for good jobs that exist in the real world.

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. June 2014