Manufacturing skills shortage solution is powerful

Paul V. Arnold, Noria Corporation
Tags: talent management

In checking the news wires recently for manufacturing jobs information, I noticed that the following headlines were listed one on top of the other:

“U.S. losing momentum in engineering”

“Worldwide hunt aims to ease skills shortage”

“U.S. can’t afford to lose its science edge”

“Energy companies in the hunt for a few good technicians”

Noticing the eerie similarity in subject matter, I thought I accidentally had searched for information on “workforce skills shortage.” But looking at the top of the page, I saw “manufacturing” in the search bar.

These articles – from newspapers in Virginia, West Virginia, New York and Houston – presented plenty of statistics:

  • Nearly 36 percent of 3,000 companies polled this year by the National Association of Manufacturers had jobs unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants.

  • Asian nations such as Taiwan and South Korea are graduating five times as many undergraduate students in engineering as the United States.

  • The U.S. government filled its allotment of 65,000 visas for the 2006 fiscal year for foreign workers with special skills.

  • The U.S. will face a shortage of roughly 13 million qualified employees by 2020. The articles also included a number of thumper quotes:

  • “America’s well-kept secret is that it has rarely produced enough American-born skilled workers with the requisite science and engineering background to support its knowledge economy.”

  • “There’s no way we can survive because our current economy is built on our technology economy, and the technology economy is built on technically proficient people, and there’s no assured supply of technically proficient people in the U.S.”

  • “Most people who graduate from the local tech schools aren’t able to pass our qualification test.”

  • “Our society’s inability to produce enough engineers and skilled manufacturing workers is, in part, a cultural and perception problem.”

All this was important stuff, but what the articles did not offer was a solution or solutions. The sky is falling. What do we do?

A few days later, I came across one solution in an article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper. It explained how Generac, a Wisconsin-based producer of generators, built a non-traditional educational program to entice high-schoolers into technical careers in manufacturing firms.

According to the article, Generac “students” follow the usual curriculum of math, English, science and social studies. But much of their eight-hour day is spent working with Generac employees in a variety of plant manufacturing jobs. Besides knowledge, the students receive entry-level wages during the 21-month, year-round program.

“They are still technically enrolled in their school district,” says Mike Carr, Generac’s marketing and communications manager. “By satisfying the requirements of the educational component and the vocational training, they can graduate with their high school class.”

Carr says 21 students have completed the program. Ten returning students and 13 new students were enrolled this September.

“It’s not a theory; it’s not a ‘good idea.’ This is a good, working program and a good example for other companies,” says Carr.

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle believes in it. He signed the 2006 state budget, which includes $200,000 to develop an education model based on the Generac program and make it available to other companies.

Sure, we have manufacturing skills shortage problems. But solutions are out there, too. You just have to search for them.

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