Plugging the Skills Gap

From industry awareness to mentoring students, everyone has a role to play in workforce development.

By Bob Vavra, Content Manager September 12, 2011

As unemployment hovers around 9%, many jobs in manufacturing go unfilled. As elected officials worry about budget deficits, a deficit in manufacturing jobs looms on the horizon. At the federal and state government level, there is confusion about how to address the problem. Manufacturers already are linking arms with educators and associations to manufacture a solution.

In large programs and small grass-roots efforts, manufacturers are finally tackling head-on a problem that has been simmering for years. A changing manufacturing environment, large job losses in many core areas over the last 20 years, and a move from a trades-oriented workforce to a service-oriented one all have contributed to a weakening of manufacturing’s reputation among workers and educators.

But a Skills Gap has emerged in the last several years as workers are retiring from jobs that no one is stepping up to fill. New technology and new manufacturing strategies are changing the way products are manufactured—and the skills needed to run equipment. The full impact of the Skills Gap may have been forestalled by, of all things, the 2008 recession, as workers who had hoped to retire saw their 401K nest eggs devastated by the stock market plunge. But even as a shaky recovery tries to hang on, the reality of an inevitable loss of tens of thousands of skilled manufacturing workers finds no younger workers poised to take their place in a changing global manufacturing environment.

Facing the facts

For the past six years, Plant Engineering readers have identified the lack of skilled workers as the single biggest issue they face. An August 2011 online poll found 47% of readers said the single largest barrier to hiring younger skilled workers is that they can’t find them. Just 16% said they don’t have a need.

Those figures are buttressed by many other recent studies. A 2005 study by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) conducted by Deloitte found that 80% of American manufacturers faced a continuing skills gap. “Skill shortages are having a widespread impact on manufacturers’ abilities to achieve production levels, increase productivity and meet customer demands.”

There is plenty of statistical evidence surrounding the workforce development issue and the Skills Gap, but there are plenty of people in manufacturing who can see past the numbers to the real impact of the problem. “Workforce development is a significant issue,” said Mark Logan, vice president of business development and marketing for MAG IAS, a global machine tool manufacturer. “Activity in the global manufacturing industry is brisk, especially in aerospace, oil and gas, and large-part machining, and the industry has a tradition of continually improving with the advancement of technology. It is important to differentiate our company from the competition, and one way we can do that is by attracting top-level talent and finding individuals who thrive on ‘pushing the envelope’ in pursuit of better production tools and methods.”

Logan said it is important for his company and others to continue to find and develop talent on their own. “Anything we can do by way of apprenticeships, leadership development programs, and cooperative arrangements with colleges and universities will help us identify and assimilate these future leaders,” he said. “Manufacturing is a specialized field and it requires specialized training. The more real-world experience we can provide these students, the better prepared they will be as they begin a career in manufacturing, and the more they’ll be able to contribute to the industry’s continued advancement.”

One of the things Logan said is needed is more initiatives that keep and return high-skilled jobs to the U.S. He also stressed the need to create a stronger pro-manufacturing business environment. But he said manufacturing needs to polish its own reputation as well as a CNC machine polishes an intricate gear.

A significant issue is changing the perception of modern manufacturing in the minds of the next generation of workers. “Manufacturing is no longer the greasy, assembly line atmosphere that it was 30 years ago,” said Robert Page, Training and Productivity Center Manager at Sandvik Coromant US. “One way to bridge the Skills Gap is by addressing such misconceptions. We need to make manufacturing jobs appealing to young people. A way of doing this is by drawing them in using advanced computer technologies. We know that young people born into the dot-com era are more technically inclined and tech savvy than older generations. Showing them that the technologies they use every day are the same computer driven technologies in most machine shops, is the first step in drawing them in.

“Manufacturers have to take responsibility for bridging the skills gap in the industry,” Page added. “We need to promote manufacturing within our communities and work with the school systems, as well as, parents. We need to educate people that a career in manufacturing is a high-technology career.”

“The educators have already realized the need to provide specialized training, and they’re reaching out to leading machine tool companies to help develop these programs,” Logan said. “We need continued efforts to raise awareness and promote manufacturing careers, as challenging, rewarding high-tech jobs are an important aspect of attracting top talent. Successfully recruiting new talent into the industry should, in turn, lead to more young professionals getting interested in a career in manufacturing.”

The need for such talent already is acute. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) estimates the U.S. will need 4.7 million new workers with postsecondary education. It estimates a company with 1,000 employees could lose $11 million a year due to a skilled worker shortage.

Building partnerships

It’s those kinds of numbers that has AACC partnering with Grainger to create a Trades in Focus program to help call attention to the problem and utilize AACC’s network of 11,000 community colleges and Grainger’s network of distributors across the country to help make the connection.

"With advanced manufacturing leading the way in job recovery in this economy, the technical skills that have always been the hallmark of community colleges are once again in great demand," said Dr. Gary M. Green, President, Forsyth Technical Community College, and Trades in Focus Advisory Committee Chair. "The success in these programs depends on partnerships between the colleges, students, and employers."

The Trades in Focus partnership between AACC and Grainger includes an awareness campaign and an online education toolkit. The initiative aims to strengthen the nation’s skilled workforce by encouraging more people to consider the trades and forging connections among community colleges, potential students, employers, business and industry, and community leaders.

“The beauty of the community colleges is that they are attuned to what the needs are. They can mold themselves into what the community needs,” said Norma Kent of AACC.

The community colleges also have launched the MetroLinks grant competition to encourage technical education. With the support of the National Science Foundation, MetroLinks is designed to bolster education in math, science, engineering, and technology.

NAM’s ‘Dream’ continues

NAM has been one of the early champions of workforce development. Its Dream It-Do It program has been the national model for a local partnership between manufacturers and educators. The goal of delivering targeted education that would provide skilled job training for a specific manufacturers’ need began in Kansas City in 2005 and has spread to 11 states.

In March 2011, the Manufacturing Institute, the NAM’s nonprofit affiliate, released a comprehensive look at how education could be used to address the continuing manufacturing Skills Gap. The report, “Roadmap to Education Reform for Manufacturing,” cited a number of educational improvements needed, as well as more ways manufacturers could engage with educational institutions to address their problems at a grass-roots level.

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • Wise investment in early childhood education
  • The integration of nationally portable, industry-recognized credentials in high school and community college degree programs of study
  • Educational pathways in high school and college that are standards-based, performance-based, and proficiency-based—not seat-time based
  • More technology-driven alternatives for secondary and postsecondary education
  • Compressed high school-college schedules via early college and dual enrollment models
  • More internships and mentorships to align higher education with industry competency and skills requirements.

“Manufacturers from across the country and in all sectors have engaged their energy, time, and resources to lead efforts in their communities and states to ensure a highly skilled and educated workforce,” said Emily DeRocco, Manufacturing Institute president, in a press release on the report. “Manufacturers look to address deficits in the education system the same way they look to improve and expedite their supply chain.”

SME’s commitment to the younger worker

Another association that has been a champion of the workforce development issue is the Society for Manufacturing Excellence (SME). Through its Education Foundation, SME has developed a number of innovative programs and partnerships that have called attention to the issue of a manufacturing Skills Gap.

“Industry and its employees have long considered workforce development a given. On-the-job training, and mandated courses of study at local colleges and universities have always been in place at various levels across industry,” said Bart A. Aslin, CEO of SME’s Education Foundation. “Today, however, the confluence of outside issues—the economy, traumatic weather events, higher productivity and cheaper labor in overseas markets, and the acceleration of emerging technologies—have surpassed our ability to teach, learn, and apply it.

“My belief is that we need to continue investing in our infrastructure and focus on education reform. At this point, the learning process is becoming horizontal with teachers and students helping each other and learning side-by-side. And companies and organizations realizing they can no longer solve the problem independently are willing to collaborate for their common good.”

One area where SME has been especially effective is in targeting the K-12 students who often do not have manufacturing on their radar screen as a career choice. Making manufacturing a viable career choice is a first step, and SME’s efforts have focused on changing the perception and redefining the discussion.

For the K-12 audience, we always believed the goal of engineering education should be the full participation of women, people of color, low-income students, and first-generation, college-bound young adults,” said Aslin. “Today’s youngsters need to be more than just users of tomorrow’s technologies—we need them to be developers of responsible technologies and products.”

SME developed technology-based summer camps for girls as early as 1997. Three years ago, it launched the Manufacturing is Cool Website ( to bring the discussion to the Internet.

“And now, 15 years later, the benefit of our Manufacturing Education Plan is being realized,” Aslin said. “Elements are now being put into place for preparing the skilled workforce that will be needed in 10 years.”

That effort culminated in September at the inaugural imX Conference in Las Vegas, where SME unveiled its “Workforce 2021” initiative. It is an extension of SME’s original Manufacturing Education Plan.

Despite those efforts, Aslin sees a long, tough path ahead. “The SME Education Foundation believes there is a need to better support the academic community and work toward building a structured STEM-based education system in our schools,” he said. “Data showed us that we needed to catch students as they entered middle school. If they do not take rigorous math and science coursework, they will not be prepared to succeed in high school and beyond.

“Our Manufacturing Education Plan, Workforce 2021, is well on its way with senior management collaborative agenda. The imX event is not about sales and marketing; it’s about management learning from each other and setting the course for a new plan for needed structural change in how we prepare workers—from K-12 and to that high-tech factory floor,” Aslin added. “People who want to be gainfully employed are going to have to work harder themselves, upgrading their skills and certifications, to secure a position. It won’t be easy.”

Job growth in Ohio

And there’s perhaps the biggest issue facing manufacturers looking to address the Skills Gap. The solution will require more than a "help wanted" sign and a job opening. Like finding a power forward for your local college basketball team, manufacturers will have to get out and actively recruit the next generation of workers. Much of it involves throwing open the doors of your plant to let the community see what actually goes on in there.

In August, Rittal announced it would add 120 jobs over the next three years at its Urbana, Ohio, plant. The 20% workforce increase will help Rittal grow its manufacturing and distribution of enclosures, power distribution, climate control, IT infrastructure, software, and services.

“In the years ahead, we will be building more and more products in Urbana and, coupled with our extensive warehousing facilities, that will make it possible for us to deliver from coast to coast on an even more timely basis,” said Vilmos Polgar, Rittal’s vice president of operations. “We want to take advantage of the labor force available in central Ohio and be positioned to respond even faster to the needs of our customers wherever they may be.”

“Our growth is being driven by a strategy that places a strong emphasis on product availability, on-time delivery, and improved customer service,” said Jim Nichols, Rittal’s vice president of marketing and service. “The strategy is complemented by developing strong partnerships with a select group of channel partners who share this drive for providing customers with a truly superior service experience at every level.”

To accomplish this growth, Rittal will use a variety of avenues to attract and recruit its future employees. “For the manufacturing personnel we need, we will utilize local agencies, online advertising, employee referrals, local career training centers, and job fairs,” said human resources manager Jack Johnston. “In conjunction with more traditional ads and searches, we hold Saturday open house events at our manufacturing facility in Urbana to allow those who work elsewhere during the week to visit Rittal and see what we do.

“Rittal has excellent relationships with several Ohio universities including Ohio State University, The University of Dayton, Wright State University, Clark State University, and Cedarville University, where we regularly recruit full-time professionals and interns,” Johnston added. “We also use local adult career training centers, including the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center, that frequently provide us with employees, especially in the area of HVAC-R certified personnel.”

But Rittal also has another recruiting tool. “Our workforce is Rittal’s ambassador to the community,” Johnston said. “Our employees talk about our stability, our work environment, our exceptional healthcare benefits, and our unique and exciting products. They share the enthusiasm we have for the company’s future, and regularly provide us with quality referrals.”

Hiring is one challenge, but Rittal’s retention of employees requires continuing to inspire and grow employees after they are hired. “We regularly provide both internal and external training throughout the company, and we’ve seen many employees move up within the organization as a result of these efforts,” Johnston said. “And, as we continue to grow, we will continue to see employees enhance their career potential and grow with us as we expand our training and developmental opportunities as well.”

Starting early in Chicago

The public/private partnership has been another avenue for manufacturers to use in developing skilled workers. In Chicago, a program that created a manufacturing high school has drawn praise and criticism, as well as highlighting the acute challenges of starting a manufacturing curriculum from scratch. It also generates its own product line.

Austin Polytechnical Academy was created out of the shell of the former Austin High School on Chicago’s far West Side. The partnership between the Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teacher’s Union, the nonprofit Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council, and the Center for Labor and Community Research brought together students looking for a career path, a focused education model for the schools, and the support of businesses looking for a new path for trained workers.

“In just four years, we have established partnerships with 65 manufacturing companies who are providing funding for public education on the West Side as well as internships, exposure, job shadowing, and jobs for APA students,” said Dan Swinney, executive director of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council and a former manufacturing executive. “APA is endorsed by Austin Coming Together, a broad-based community coalition eager for redevelopment of the community including a revitalized manufacturing sector. APA is now recruiting parents and adults in the community to have a similar education program in the evenings and on the weekends so they can also get National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) credentials and fill those unfilled family-supporting jobs.”

Austin Polytechnical is in what can generously be called an academically challenged part of Chicago. “Students enter the ninth grade frequently with a fourth- to fifth-grade level of knowledge in math and English,” Swinney said. “We saw it had a good development when CPS placed the school on academic probation and initiated an evaluation process of the teaching staff this last year rather than denying or ignoring the shortcomings as has been the case in years past. Our model requires high academic performance.”

Swinney noted that test scores at Austin Polytechnical have continued to improve, and the school’s math score on the ACT was up to 16.1—modest in many schools, but up steadily from 2010 scores. “Math improvement is a great example of the power of contextual education available at APA: excellent teaching in math, reinforced by applied math in engineering and machining classes, and further supplemented to real career opportunities in manufacturing that require math skills,” Swinney noted.

Perhaps the best indication of progress at Austin Polytechnical is that 92 of the school’s 109 seniors graduated, and 59 of those have been accepted to college.  

There have been significant challenges as well. The school faced controversy and student protest after the outgoing principal gave poor evaluations to seven teachers and fired them. Students organized a protest over the evaluations, and those students were suspended. Those suspensions ultimately were overturned.

A new principal, the third in Austin Polytechnical’s fifth year of existence, was hired for the 2011-12 school year. In a small bit of irony, her name is LaTonya Austin. “She’s a strong leader. And she embraces the vision of the school. We are absolutely confident that she will build a strong common culture in our school and lead continuous improvement in our academic performance, our career program, and our relationships with the community and partners,” Swinney said. “Her success will, in part, come from the honest engagement of challenges and barriers in our first four years at APA.”

Students also have succeeded in working with SME to create and develop a new product manufactured at the Austin Polytechnical campus. The SME Education Foundation ordered 500 aluminum whistles manufactured by Austin Polytechnical students. An order for another 100 whistles was placed by SME’s Chicago-area chapter.

“We’ve been following the wonderful progress at Austin Polytechnical, and we’re excited to play a part in this new contextual education program,” said Bob Iossi, chairman of SME’s Chicago-area chapter. “We are working…to ensure Chicago has the manufacturing resources needed for local manufacturers.”

“By working within a legitimate contract to manufacture an item of value, students learn real-world economics, manufacturing, and business skills,” said Swinney. “We are looking forward to working with the SME Education Foundation as we pursue other opportunities to replicate this applied learning program. Maintaining the flow of work for hands-on experience is key to preparing (Austin) students for leadership in advanced manufacturing.”

Hands-on efforts

Other public/private efforts have increasingly put manufacturing professionals in touch with students. Segway inventor Dean Kaman’s First Robotics program is perhaps the best known effort, but organizations such as SkillsUSA also have a strong focus on metalforming and machining. The annual national championship was held in Kansas City, Mo., in June, bringing in student qualifiers from high schools and colleges around the country for a four-day competition. It also put students in front of mentors and corporate support for metalforming career skills.

Another organization created to offer mentoring to students is Industrial Careers Pathway. The coalition of trade associations involved in industrial distribution is recruiting “ICP Ambassadors” to talk about the career to young people interested in the field of industrial distribution.

The Ambassadors are asked to donate four hours a year to:

  • Bring positive attention to the industrial distribution field and its diverse career opportunities
  • Advocate for additional training and education opportunities for tomorrow’s workforce
  • Seek out and connect with young adults who would be likely job candidates for the field
  • Provide tools and resources to successfully incorporate younger employees into the distribution workplace.

“It is our hope that our Ambassadors get as much or more from their contribution to ICP as they give,” said Bill Childers, who is a charter ICP Ambassador and works as president, North American sales, for Rexnord Industries, LLC.

The solution: Reaching out, outreach

Manufacturing leaders can find a wide variety of straw men on which to hang the blame for a worker shortage. If some of the causes were cultural, economic and social, there also was an assumption that if the jobs were good and plentiful, there’d always be workers to fill them.

Now, at a time where jobs are not plentiful and the skills needed to fill them don’t match the workers, the time for hand-wringing or finger-pointing is over. Specific actions are required to bring skilled, engaged workers into manufacturing to fill the thousands of jobs that will be needed to meet current demand and to grow manufacturing effectively in the next decade.

While not a comprehensive list, the discussions with dozens of industry experts on the topic reveal some common strategies:

  • Engage high school educators. It’s a pathway to the students—and their parents—to educate educators on how manufacturing has changed.
  • Invite the community. Let your local community see what really goes on behind the four walls of your plant. The fastest way to change an incorrect perception of manufacturing is to create a new reality.
  • Participate in industry groups focusing on the workforce development issue. While finding workers in your own back yard is convenient, the effort gets you in touch with a wider circle of potential employees. If good workers are hard to find, hard workers also are good to find.
  • Use the local community college as an extension of your own training and recruiting program. The community colleges represent the fastest path of a skilled workforce because of their flexibility. Manufacturers can create a training relationship for workforce development that can turn into a continuing education and training system. The result benefits the manufacturer, the worker, and the community college.
  • Recruit veterans. Those returning from military service often are looking to translate the skills and discipline they learned in service to a productive career. Manufacturing provides such a path. In return, manufacturers get workers who understand the true concept of service.
  • Innovate. There always are unique problems in manufacturing, but good engineering and collaboration are the way those problems get solved. The issue of a Skills Gap is no different. Take your own specific issues and the ideas cited above and engineer your own solution.