Posted on 12/7/2016

The Manufacturing Workforce: A Threatened Resource

Jeff Krause

Through the recent election, I was grateful for one element that became prominent in political rhetoric (mentioned at an unprecedented rate): manufacturing and its importance to America. It’s good to see this public discussion and political recognition return to more mainstream attention. Despite ebbs and flows and economic cycles, manufacturing remains singularly and critically important to America and our economic foundation – even ultimately our national security.

The noise got really loud when the topic turned recently to manufacturing employment. “We need jobs. We need to bring jobs back.”

That plays well to some voting blocs, but it isn’t acknowledging a stark reality: manufacturing jobs exist and there are huge numbers of unfilled positions. Right now. All over the country. The challenge? Any manufacturing employer could tell you: finding those with the skills and abilities to take the rewarding, well-paid opportunities being offered. 

Let’s consider the scale of opportunity. In September, there were 334,000 job openings in the manufacturing industry. Those numbers underscore that automation and robotics aren’t killing manufacturing jobs – if anything, those technologies create even more opportunity for appropriately skilled and trained workers. 

What America is really facing is a failure to train current workers, a failure to train those entering the workforce, and most startlingly, a failure to even interest students in manufacturing careers.

An SME study found that 54 percent of companies don’t have a plan in place to train their current workforce (even as their experienced baby boomer workforce retires) and that 40 percent of companies don’t even plan for training in their budget. It’s time for organizations to recognize and invest in technical and skills training – advanced manufacturing expertise is not a luxury: it’s a necessity. Clearly, training of existing workers has to improve for employers to reap the full value (and workers their full potential) of the opportunities in manufacturing today. 

Manufacturing has certainly changed in recent times. Technologies have advanced, new and different materials are now commonplace; information management, digital manufacturing, advanced robotics and intelligent production and machine control enable unprecedented productivity. Manufacturers don’t need laborers: they require skilled, engaged contributors. 80 percent of manufacturing jobs now require vocational training, an associate’s degree or certification – and workers with those jobs will see wages and benefits in excess of $79,553 a year.

The surprising fact: over the next decade, 2 million of these jobs will go unfilled. By 2010, we were seeing technical and vocational programs decline in public schools. Apprenticeship programs declined. And basic science, technology, engineering and math skills among entering workers have declined. Now is the time for students and employers to learn about partnerships, sponsorships, educational foundations and other opportunities to get a head start – and maintain a competitive advantage.

Some enlightened companies are realizing again the importance of entry-level training programs and apprenticeships – and they’re partnering with schools in the process, making the employment opportunity available to a broad and diverse audience.

Yet, how manufacturing is portrayed or perceived isn’t helping. It isn’t a dark, dreary, soulless dystopia: it’s bright and advanced; diverse in people, technology and experiences. Too many are holding on to outdated stereotypical images. SME conducted a survey this year that revealed 40 percent of parents did not see manufacturing as a well-paying employment choice for their children. And 50 percent did not see manufacturing as an exciting, challenging or engaging profession. 

If the perceptions of parents and counselors are flawed about the opportunities in American manufacturing, it’s little wonder that students aren’t exploring the classes needed to excel in industry or the training to do important work as soon as they graduate. Leaders in industry along with teachers and administrators need to share the message that there is opportunity, good wages, valuable benefits, satisfaction and fulfilment in manufacturing careers.

Manufacturing built our country, created wealth across a population and ultimately defined the global presence of America. But we’re not managing our key manufacturing resource very well – people. It’s time companies, professional organizations, schools, administrators and educators work closely together and united to ensure bright futures for prepared and skilled workers in manufacturing.


About the Author

Jeff Krause | SME

Jeffrey M. Krause joined SME as executive director and chief executive officer in December 2014, and is responsible for setting the strategic direction of the organization, while leading day-to-day operations and working closely with customers and stakeholders to enable growth. Prior to SME, Krause served as vice president of automotive aftermarket and business development for Intraco where he was responsible for the global automotive and heavy-duty aftermarket business, ensuring that key objectives are achieved related to growth, service delivery, branding and profitability. Krause began his career with General Motors in 1977 and transitioned to Delphi in 1999. He has extensive experience in many facets of the business and has served in key leadership positions, including general management, business development, sales and strategic planning at the product line and corporate levels. Krause served as vice chairman of the General Motors Foundation and has led several acquisitions and divestitures for GM and Delphi. Krause holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial administration from Kettering University and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University. SME Member Since 2015


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