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Re-shoring Manufacturing Jobs Requires Good Training Programs

July 13, 2012


Last summer Derek Singleton wrote, “Manufacturing is still an important economic driver. … However, we’ll need more young people to go into the business of producing products.” [“How Manufacturing Can Attract Young Talent Again,” Software Advice, 30 August 2011] Implied in Singleton’s comment is the fact that skilled workers are in short supply in the manufacturing sector. Earlier this year, Peter Whoriskey confirmed that notion when he reported that a lack of jobs in the manufacturing sector was not a contributing factor to high unemployment. “Many manufacturers,” he wrote, “say that, in fact, the jobs are already here. What’s missing are the skilled workers needed to fill them.” [“U.S. manufacturing sees shortage of skilled factory workers,” Washington Post, 19 February 2012] Whoriskey continued:

“Through a combination of overseas competition and productivity gains, the United States has lost nearly 4 million manufacturing jobs in the past 10 years. But many manufacturers say the losses have not yielded a surplus of skilled factory workers. Instead, as automation has transformed factories and altered the skills needed to operate and maintain factory equipment, the laid-off workers, who may be familiar with the old-fashioned presses and lathes, are often unqualified to run the new.”

Whoriskey agreed with Singleton that one of problems facing manufacturers is that young people are no longer attracted to manufacturing. He explained:

“Compounding the problem is a demographic wave. At some factories, much of the workforce consists of baby boomers who are nearing retirement. Many of the younger workers who might have taken their place have avoided the manufacturing sector because of the volatility and stigma of factory work, as well as perceptions that U.S. manufacturing is a ‘dying industry.'”

The big question that Singleton asked is: How can manufacturing attract young talent again? He wrote:

“Can we make manufacturing cool again? That is, what will it take to make young people seriously consider a career in manufacturing? I believe in order to make manufacturing an appealing career again we’ll need to:

  • Wash away the negative media images of manufacturing;
  • Alter the perception that manufacturing is dead in the United States; and,
  • Re-connect the youth with making things, on their terms.”

I’ve read several commentaries in which the authors state that most kids still get excited by making things but simply aren’t given as many opportunities to do that as they were in the days before television and computers. They argue that one way that we need to change early education is to once again introduce children to making things while they are in a controlled environment away from the distractions they find at home (see, for example, “Bring back shop class,” by Valerie Strauss and Marc Epstein, Washington Post, 22 December 2010). Singleton argued that the fact that society has consciously elevated the importance and status of white collar jobs over blue collar jobs has been a real disservice to the middle class. He wrote:

“According to an Area Development report on the 2009 Public Viewpoint on Manufacturing survey, 70 percent of respondents view manufacturing as a top priority for a strong national economy. Tellingly, however, only 17 percent of surveyed participants listed working in manufacturing in their top two career choices. This is surprising given that the average income for a manufacturing worker is $74,447 – more than $10,000 higher than the national average for non-manufacturing workers.”

Whoriskey reported that “the shortage of skilled workers was noted before the recession, but the phenomenon has become more acute with the recent recovery.” He continued:

“A recent report by Deloitte for the Manufacturing Institute, based on a survey of manufacturers, found that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled. … Much of the demand for skilled workers arises because the automated factories demand workers who can operate, program and maintain the new computerized equipment. Many of those who have been laid off can operate only the old-fashioned manual machines. The old lathes and mills were operated by hand and turned out pieces one by one. The new ones, as big as minivans and arrayed with screens and buttons, must be programmed with codes that sometimes look arcane. The computer numerically controlled, or CNC, machines can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Once they are programmed, they churn out piece after piece unattended.”

Singleton argued that part of the problem is that the only manufacturing role models that young people may know are their grandfathers (or their “Rosie the Riveter” great-grandmothers). The problem with that is the skills that made grandfather a middle class success are not the skills required today. As Whoriskey noted, today’s skilled worker often requires more computer skills than the average white collar worker. The Discovery Channel needs to give Mike Rowe a break and have him do a series called “Factory Jobs” that highlight the modern factory floor. Whoriskey continued:

“The leap in technology means that many of the workers who once toiled on the old machines, and had become proficient on them, can no longer find jobs. ‘You don’t see anyone advertising for just a tool and die maker anymore,’ said Tom Whitmore, 59, a tool and die maker who was laid off in 2009 after 33 years at a nearby auto parts maker. ‘They want CNC skills. For most of them, I can’t apply.’ Whitmore and two of his co-workers are attending classes at Lake Michigan College to attain an associate’s degree in machine tool technology.”

Whoriskey agreed with Singleton that “attracting younger workers onto the factory floor can be difficult.” He also agreed with him that part of the problem was the fact that society no longer seems to appreciate vocational pursuits. Whoriskey wrote:

“Machine-shop classes have been cut in some high schools. Many high schools, moreover, would rather focus on helping children get into four-year colleges than preparing them for vocational pursuits. ‘It’s a glamour issue,’ said Dave Van Dam, 37. ‘The kids come in here and see a dirty, loud place. We get oil on ourselves. Then they go upstairs and they see the designers in their cubicles with two screens and headphones on listening to music. ‘Plus, there’s the uniform we wear on the floor,’ said Van Dam, dressed in work pants and a shirt with his name embroidered in blue stitching on the chest. ‘You go into a restaurant dressed like this, and you get treated different than if you have a suit on.’ The funny thing is, Van Dam said, that a skilled machine operator makes more than a designer. Pay for skilled operator-programmers runs from $18 to $28 per hour; the designers upstairs make $14 to $24.”

Singleton recommended three strategies that could be used to attract young people into the manufacturing sector: He wrote:

“We need a strategic shift in our culture. And that requires completely changing young people’s perceptions about the value of manufacturing – and the career opportunities in the industry. This means reacquainting youth with the process of designing and building products from an early age – and then providing the creative freedom to build those things on their terms. I’d like to share two examples I’ve come across in the industry and suggest a third of my own.

  1. Manufacturing summer camps – A recent New York Times article highlighted an innovative summer camp, called Gadget Camp, where teenagers learn how to build things from concept to creation. Attendees are required to design a product through computer-aided design (CAD) technology and oversee the design to completion. It’s a fun environment where kids are simultaneously exposed to manufacturing and project management, as well as how to build something. According to Lee, whose organization partially funds Gadget Camp, the camps have anywhere from 12 to 20 students. But these efforts need to be scaled up and out across the nation.
  2. Gamification of manufacturing – Gamification is a hot topic in many aspects of business at the moment – one driven by the idea that adding gaming elements to non-gaming activities encourages action and participation. It’s a movement that seeks to capitalize on our youth’s obsession with video games as well as our competitive nature. According to Diana Miller and Simon Jacobson’s recent Gartner First Thing Monday Morning newsletter, Invensys has been using 3D gaming technology to teach new hires how to operate oil refinery equipment for the past few years. In the same vein, Siemens recently released Plantville, a program designed to teach manufacturing processes and technologies to young people and new hires.
  3. Restore shop classes to our high schools – The elimination of these courses from our school systems has inevitably had a negative impact on the way we view making a living with our hands. We can all learn from building something with our hands because it teaches us a different way to think. And more importantly, hands-on learning through shop classes helps young people move an idea from concept to creation – which is useful regardless of one’s future occupation.”

Whoriskey added another strategy to that list — apprenticeships. He wrote:

“Many companies have apprenticeship programs. At the new Siemens plant in Charlotte, officials tested 2,000 of these applicants for every 50 openings. About 10 percent passed, and the field was then winnowed through interviews. Hundreds are taking job-specific training. The company has even arranged with Central Piedmont Community College to develop a ‘mechatronics’ curriculum with an associate’s degree. ‘We knew that we were not going to find the people with the right skills right off the streets,’ said Mark Pringle, director of operations at the plant. ‘So we tried to find people with the right aptitudes.'”

Vanessa Fuhrmans reports that German training programs are beginning to catch on in the United States. “Germany’s transplant-factories, like the sprawling Volkswagen AG complex [in Chattanooga], aren’t just cranking out cars, machinery and chemicals. They’re also bringing a German training system that could help narrow America’s skilled labor gap.” [“Germany’s New Export: Jobs Training,” Wall Street Journal, 14 June 2012] Apprenticeships and training programs seem to be gaining ground. Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and director of its Center for Human Resources, asserts that most companies would be better off if they trained more and complained less. [“Employers Could Fill Jobs If They Trained More, Complained Less, Prof Says,” by Marilyn Geewax, NPR, 12 June 2012] Geewax’s short article is well worth reading. Supply chain analyst Bob Ferrari agrees with Professor Cappelli that it’s time to stop complaining and start acting. “One thought however bears reinforcement,” he writes. “It is time for all of us to stop citing a shortage of skills as an ongoing problem and instead cite programs and initiatives that address both proactive training and compensation for skills acquired.” [“Is There Really a Shortage of Qualified People?” Supply Chain Matters, 13 June 2012]


The bottom line is that workers need to be willing to get trained and employers need to be willing to provide that training. It’s clear that the current educational system isn’t going to produce workers with the proper skills. Companies could help change that by teaming with local educational institutions to create curricula that do produce workers with the required skills.


Postscript: To read Derek Singleton’s latest thoughts on manufacturing, see his post entitled What Can be ‘Made in the USA’? [Software Advice, 9 July 2012]. His post nicely complements a post I wrote the same day entitled U.S. Manufacturing at a Tipping Point.

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