Our biggest challenge

Every time I talk for very long with a plant engineer, it seems, the conversation turns to the problem of skilled workers -- and the lack thereof. In every survey we conduct about the problems of plant engineers, training is at or near the top.


Every time I talk for very long with a plant engineer, it seems, the conversation turns to the problem of skilled workers -- and the lack thereof. In every survey we conduct about the problems of plant engineers, training is at or near the top.

The problem is not exclusive to plant engineering and maintenance, of course. A recent study of more than 1000 plants by the National Association of Manufacturers concluded that the weakest dimension of U.S. manufacturers' continued ability to lead the world is the education, training, and skill level of the U.S. workforce.

In another study of 4500 manufacturers conducted not long ago by Grant Thornton and the NAM, 63% of respondents indicated improvements are needed in their workers' basic job skills, 60% in basic math skills, and 55% in basic written language/ comprehension skills. Overall, about nine out of 10 manufacturers who participated in the survey stated that job applicants are seriously lacking in basic skills. And more than one-fourth of the companies regularly reject more than 75% of applicants as unqualified.

You've probably run across data similar to these before. You may feel like they're based on your plant's experiences. And of course, the education dilemma has been a national embarrassment and political issue for years. But that's just the point. The situation doesn't seem to be getting any better. For industry to grow and improve, therefore, it must pick up the slack.

While many companies are responding to the challenge, the NAM reports that less than half of all manufacturers spend 2% or more of payroll to train their shop floor and other hourly employees. The NAM concludes that this is not good enough, and it has called on its members to put more energy and resources into worker training.

The payoffs for this kind of investment can be substantial. First, a workforce that can understand and use technological advances supports growth. According to Jerry J. Jasinowski, president and CEO of NAM, it is reasonable to say that technological advances account for roughly two-thirds of productivity growth in the 1990s, or about one-third of overall growth in nonfarm business. This growth is not possible without a skilled, trained workforce.

Second, education raises productivity. In manufacturing, according to the NAM, a 1-yr increase in the educational level of workers equals an 8.5% hike in productivity. That's a pretty good return, I'd say, and one you might keep in mind next time you're reviewing your training budget.

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