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Addressing the Skills Gap in Manufacturing

There are several actions industries and government agencies can take to help close the skills gap and help workers achieve some job security in a world that’s changing before our eyes.

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Kayla MatthewsKayla Matthews

The world of manufacturing is in the throes of a major transformation. True automation is edging into many occupations human workers once carried out — but then again, maybe “displacing” is a better word than “replacing” when it comes to the skilled workers in question.

Automated technologies do render some skill sets obsolete, but they also create entirely new ones. It’s not really as dramatic as a “jobs apocalypse,” as some have taken to calling it, but it’s definitely creating a skills gap manufacturing employers will need to address soon to avoid some real growing pains in the near future.

What Is the Skills Gap in Manufacturing?

The skills gap in manufacturing is a direct result of automation, but automation alone isn’t the only reason. Even as technology and machines continue to represent an ever-larger share of the knowledge necessary to succeed in the workforce, employers need their workers to adopt new skills and even new ways of thinking to pivot from front-line employees to support roles.

In other words, automated manufacturing apparatuses might be capable of sky-high productivity — much higher than human workers — but we’ll never build a perpetual-motion machine that can function without human intervention. And sometimes it takes a lot of intervention.

Even the most sophisticated manufacturing technology is going to need a sizable workforce to stay functional without a noticeable drop in productivity and profit. German manufacturers collectively ‘employ’ about three times the number of robots American manufacturers do. However, they also employ a human workforce that is, proportionally speaking, twice the size of the human manufacturing workforce in the United States.

That’s probably surprising for many of us, but it’s also very encouraging. The most likely future appears to be one in which automated technologies operate alongside humans in a symbiotic relationship.

Nevertheless, the challenge of getting those humans up to speed on designing, building, maintaining and troubleshooting brand-new technologies has been a difficult one so far. And it’s only going to get more difficult as manufacturing and other industries begin to rely more heavily on managed software platforms and cloud computing tools.

Why Is a Skills Gap Detrimental for the Industry?

If current trends continue, by the year 2025, there might be as many as 3.5 million new jobs available in manufacturing — but we might still be short on qualified workers by 2 million or more. These are decent-paying skilled and semi-skilled positions in welding, CNC programming, robotics technologies and machinists of all stripes.

The implications of millions of unfilled jobs will become even more complex with the upcoming mass exodus of baby boomers from the workforce, the global exchange of qualified workers and the manifold pressures of globalization. Companies are going to suffer if they don’t have the talent they need to meet demand. In critical industries, like medical device manufacturing, the dangers are even more clear and present.

We can, however, come away from this feeling optimistic. The takeaway is that there isn’t a job or labor shortage — there just isn’t a clear roadmap for helping existing employees or out-of-work skilled machinists and technicians pivot toward a more future-proof discipline.

There are several actions industries and government agencies can take to help close the skills gap and help workers achieve some job security in a world that’s changing before our eyes.

What Can We Do About It?

The first part of the problem is that young people aren’t always aware of the number and variety of manufacturing jobs available. It’s partially because younger workers have several misconceptions and even stigmas about this field, with several polls indicating they think it’s low-tech or low-brow.

That makes this a communication problem, but one we can address on several levels

  • Better-informed school guidance counselors who can help steer students toward careers in machinery, robots, information technology and other emerging fields.
  • More effective public outreach by employers to target unemployed or underemployed workers who might have been displaced by automation or who have given up looking for work.
  • Sensible state and federal legislation that would make community colleges and vocational skills more affordable or tuition-free, plus a public information campaign about the skills gap and resources for connecting would-be students with schools that match their interests and opportunities in their area.

On the employer side of things, personal development programs and incentivized learning have always been popular, and they can find a new purpose here, too, in helping close the skills gap.

We mentioned legislation above, which is worth considering. Most people agree public schools should be more effectively equipping graduates for success in the real world, with well-rounded interests and a high degree of fluency in STEM fields. Some candidates in American politics have floated the idea of a federal jobs guarantee or a “Green New Deal.”

What they’re calling for is exactly what we’ve been talking about: a shared effort between government and industry to connect people with opportunities they might not know about, including training to enter a new role or industry.

Clearly, the best solution for this potential impending crisis is collaboration and better communication between private and public interests. One organization, called KentuckianaWorks, is a region-based affiliation that helps students get in touch with potential employers, helps fund training and re-certification programs and engages in public information campaigns to spread the word about available opportunities.

Through programs like these, some machinists who haven’t worked in several years, and haven’t stepped foot in a classroom for several decades, can earn a relevant certification in just a matter of weeks and successfully find employment soon after.

The skills gap is real, and the impending jobs shortage will get very real, too, if we don’t get better at talking about it. As we’ve seen, though, most of the news here is positive. The land of opportunity still has opportunities aplenty.

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