Dealing with the skills problem

A skilled workforce is one of the biggest problems facing plant engineers -- if not the biggest. It has been a problem for many years, and it will continue to be a problem. Consider, for example, that the U.S.
By Richard L. Dunn July 1, 1999

A skilled workforce is one of the biggest problems facing plant engineers — if not the biggest. It has been a problem for many years, and it will continue to be a problem.

Consider, for example, that the U.S. economy is growing faster than the population. Result: a shortage of skilled workers. Consider, too, that the nonmanufacturing sector of our economy is growing faster than the manufacturing sector. Result: A shortage of skilled workers in manufacturing. And how about this: Everyone who will enter the workforce in the next couple of decades is already alive.

Of course, the problem is qualitative as well as quantitative. The gap between skills available and skills needed is growing. While the required knowledge base is expanding, education in the basics is shrinking. Our high schools, for example, are dropping shop and mechanical arts courses like they were hot biscuits. Lack of student interest is a big factor. One study says that in 1982 almost 15% of high school graduates had taken three or more trade or industry-related courses. By 1994, that percentage dropped to less than 9%.

Our research confirms the problem. About 75% of our readers say they are becoming more involved with training, education, and skills development. And “skills of the workforce” is at the top of the list of challenges in plant engineering.

Fortunately, there are a few encouraging signs providing at least a glow, if not a light, at the end of the tunnel.

One such glow is the growing initiative to establish skill standards for manufacturing workers. It’s called the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC), and it currently involves about 175 companies, associations, unions, and educational institutions. Mission of the MSSC is to develop a nationwide system of workforce skill standards for manufacturing and related installation and repair workers. By establishing national skill standards, this group expects to enhance industrial productivity and competitiveness, guide education and training goals, and support workers’ careers and opportunities.

MSSC has achieved recognition by the National Skill Standards Board. More information is available online at www.msscusa.org.

Another promising effort at skill development is the National Association of Manufacturers Virtual University. Through this internet service, NAM member companies can access online courses in basic skills. If your company belongs to NAM, check it out at www.namvu.com.