Plug the Skills Gap at a grass-roots level

There were 793,000 people in manufacturing who lost jobs in 2008. Here's a story about one person who got a job in manufacturing in 2009. Julie Nechchat is a student at Valencia Community College in Florida. She went from not knowing what she wanted to do after high school to the military, which is not an unusual career path.


There were 793,000 people in manufacturing who lost jobs in 2008. Here's a story about one person who got a job in manufacturing in 2009.

Julie Nechchat is a student at Valencia Community College in Florida. She went from not knowing what she wanted to do after high school to the military, which is not an unusual career path. What followed was unusual. She wound up fueling jets on an aircraft carrier, then came home without a clear path of what's next, but with the experience and discipline gained as a veteran.

She found that experience to be of good use in the Florida community college system, and was directed into the electrical engineering program at Valencia. She's on track to graduate with a degree in electronics engineering technology with a specialization in lasers and photonics.

I met her while I was moderating a town hall meeting on the Skills Gap at Grainger's Total MRO Solutions event in Orlando in January. It brought together key individuals from manufacturing, construction and education in south Florida.

It seems incongruous to talk about a job shortage when manufacturing just lost 793,000 jobs in 2008, but the reality of the Skills Gap is that when the economy improves, the Baby Boomers will retire when manufacturing isn't prepared to fill those high-paying, highly-skilled jobs. It's something everyone but the truly obtuse %%MDASSML%% and by this I include CNN anchors and narrow-minded trade associations %%MDASSML%% all concede is a serious issue.

Mike Pulick, president of Grainger's U.S. operations, noted at the open of the town hall meeting that the perception of manufacturing jobs needs to evolve. “The reality is that the opportunity in skilled labor is huge going forward,” Pulick told more than 100 people attending the event. “A high school student thinking about a career in the trades has in many cases higher earning potential than someone with a four-year college degree.” And as the 2008 Plant Engineering Salary Survey showed, those with experience and a background in manufacturing have huge earning potential.

Mike Rowe is the host of Dirty Jobs, the Discovery Channel series that puts Rowe in some of America's toughest workplaces. He's also now the cover boy for Grainger's new catalog and a spokesman for Grainger's initiative on plugging the Skills Gap. He's also a vocal advocate for the importance of hard work and has some pointed views on the issue.

“We've done a really stupid thing over the last 30 years,” Rowe told the meeting. “We've had a sort of Cold War on work. There's been a pervasive marginalizing of these jobs. We no longer have icons of work. We have American Idols.”

Rowe told the opening of the Grainger event on Monday night, “30 years ago, we understood that this country was held together by people who go to work clean and come home dirty. The definition of doing a good job has changed.”

The solution to the Skills Gap, and the reawakening of manufacturing as a career in America, requires more than celebrity endorsements. It has to be endorsed by the same communities that helped manufacturing grow to lead the world.

This is a grass-roots effort. As Julie Nechchat's story demonstrates, it requires connecting young people with potential with the skills they need to reach that potential. It requires community leaders to partner with educational, business and civic leaders to establish a program to promote skilled manufacturing talent.

This will attract not just the workers, but the companies that need those skilled workers. Talent will go where the jobs are, but history has also shown us the reverse is true; a major consideration for manufacturers when they site a plant is the availability of a skilled workforce.

This is economic stimulation that doesn't require Congressional approval or presidential edicts. This requires communities banding together to build their own stimulus package for manufacturing.

We'd better start soon, though. The plant worker you want to bring on as a new employee in five years is now a high school senior. What are you doing to reach out to that student today?

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