Nearly 3.5 million manufacturing positions will open up over the next ten years, but almost two million of those jobs will go unfilled because skilled workers are not available, according to “The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing: 2015 and Beyond,” a Deloitte/Manufacturing Institute study.
Despite the number of baby boomers retiring from the manufacturing sector each year, millennials are unconvinced that this vital segment of the economy can provide a ready, fulfilling and rewarding future. Despite the fact that many college graduates can’t find quality employment, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that nearly 45 percent of recent graduates are considered “underemployed” in low-wage or part-time jobs that don’t require a college degree.
However, industry associations, government agencies and trade groups, as well as non-profit and for-profit colleges and vocational schools, can be part of the solution by helping to change attitudes about manufacturing careers. The best way to do that is to work closely with manufacturers who are on the front lines of the issue.
U.S. manufacturers can play an active role in meeting the vocational training challenge through proactive efforts of their own and by working with educators. By altering attitudes and instituting creative training solutions, manufacturers can once again depend on sufficient numbers of young people moving into technical careers.
The best way to start is by raising the visibility of manufacturing as a viable career alternative before young people make their post-high school decisions. High school juniors and seniors need to get information about the positive aspects of a career in manufacturing to displace persistent misperceptions. Job fairs and in-school presentations at high schools are great places to spread the message.
Digital outreach is even more effective. Employers should consider placements on professional websites for academic and job counselors, as well as social media campaigns directed at both the students and their parents. The task of changing perceptions must begin early—and it must be persistent.
Of course, message is as important as timing. Young people must be able to see and appreciate the appeal of manufacturing careers. This means it is important to understand the millennial mindset. Salary, while important, is often not the main issue. Quick employment, creative and intellectual challenges, work/life balance, overtime opportunities, and paths for promotion are also key factors.
Another important channel for changing attitudes is the media. For all the chatter about Common Core and crushing student loans, very little is said about the misperceptions of manufacturing careers. Reporters and editors need to be encouraged to talk about the “new world” of American manufacturing and the fresh opportunities it presents to young people.
Many employers have already forged strong partnerships with vocational schools and community colleges, which is an excellent way to reach potential employees. Skills for America’s Future, an initiative founded by now-Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, and administered by The Aspen Institute, is a clearinghouse for ideas and strategies to increase partnerships between employers and community colleges. The program has already helped establish 300 alliances that span dozens of employers and more than 230 community colleges.
Employers can further strengthen their ties with technical and trade schools by offering scholarships, internships and work-study programs. These contributions not only raise awareness and change attitudes, but also connect employers with the brightest, most talented and motivated students, creating a natural recruitment pipeline.
Finally, manufacturing companies can consider creative enhancements to their own training programs. Mobile training providers, for example, can now supplement on-site training from in-house instructors, giving them the specific skills they need. Classes can be set up in company facilities any hour of the day or night—and a host of online and customized course options meet the needs of any employer or employee.
In-house vocational training can solve many problems, from satisfying isolated or individualized training needs to covering diverse, factory-wide skills acquisition. It’s estimated that a 3.5 percent increase in worker productivity—a 17-minute per day increase—can yield an annual 200 percent ROI on the cost of offering a single vocational course.
The manufacturing skills gap is perhaps the greatest training challenge to come along in decades. A partnership between employers, schools and public sector agencies is a great way to address the problem. Whether large or small, companies also need to play a direct role in changing perceptions, increasing opportunities and providing vocational training themselves. Only then can manufacturers rely on a new generation of skilled, motivated workers that will meet—and ultimately win—the global competitive challenge.