America's Most Wanted: Skilled Workers

Despite recession job losses, the skilled worker gap is still plaguing manufacturing. Between image problems and a lack of training, there may not be a better time to improve your value-added services in high tech areas

by Gerald Shankel, President and CEO, Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International

Consider a manufacturing career amid media reports of shuttered factories, job losses, and the worst economy since the Depression? Although certainly counter-intuitive, the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!” Despite the shaky economy, scores of American manufacturers are reporting a dire need for skilled labor.

Industry surveys reinforce this claim. According to the 2009 Manpower Talent Shortage Survey, among the most difficult jobs to fill in North America are those of the skilled manual trades, with electricians, carpenters/joiners, and welders as the most in-demand employees.

In addition, an October 2009 report issued by the Manufacturing Institute, Deloitte and Oracle, cites that among companies involved in skilled production (whose employees are machinists, craft workers, and technicians), 51 percent report shortages and see increased shortages ahead.

Although the United States has lost huge numbers of manufacturing jobs to countries like China, there still are well-paying job opportunities for skilled workers in the manufacturing sector here. As more and more baby boomers retire, the problem is only expected to accelerate.

The looming skilled worker shortage is an unwelcome threat to the nation’s manufacturing base that needs to be addressed at multiple levels, from better educating the next generation of factory workers to improving the public’s image of plant work.

Manufacturing’s Image Problem

There’s no doubt that manufacturing has an image problem – especially among today’s youth. A national poll of teenagers underscored in a major way teens’ disinterest in manufacturing and working with their hands, and how the educational system ignored this arena as a viable career option.

The poll, sponsored by Nuts Bolts & Thingamajigs (NBT) and the Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA), showed a majority of teens – 52 percent – have little or no interest in a manufacturing career and another 21 percent are ambivalent. When asked why, a whopping 61 percent said they seek a professional career, far surpassing other issues such as pay (17 percent), career growth (15 percent) and physical work (14 percent).

A major reason that kids don’t pursue careers in the skilled trades is the simple fact they are not introduced to them anymore. In the past, high school students could take a shop class and get a feel for working with tools, but today most don’t have that chance.

Also, factory conditions have changed dramatically – yet many of today’s youth are unaware. The old stereotypes of backbreaking labor and grimy working conditions persist, yet it’s far from the truth. Ask people today what they think of manufacturing and most will probably recite a perception of a dirty, dangerous place that requires little thinking or skill from its workers and offers minimal opportunity for personal growth or career advancement.

It’s absolutely critical to change this mindset and show young people how manufacturers have modernized, embraced new technologies, and involved workers in management and product development.

Manufacturing Opportunities Abound

The manufacturing environment is changing in terms of needs, opportunities, and the talents required. Most of the fastest growing manufacturing jobs today require advanced knowledge and skills, but many in the available workforce lack these proficiencies and the educational background.

Technology is expanding exponentially throughout the industry — from design and production to inventory management, delivery, and service. Manufacturing positions today include exciting work with lasers and robotics. The introduction of CNC machine tools has changed the nature of the work of machinists. Now, a machinist has to be computer literate and understand basic electronics and physics.

According to Laura Narvaiz, vice president of communications for the National Association of Manufacturers, “A lot of jobs require at least an associate degree or manufacturing certificate. Workers have to know how to program computers, fix computers and work with robotics.”

In addition to manufacturing demand, demographic factors contribute to the looming employment crisis. The average age of a worker in today’s skilled workforce is 56 years old. The baby boomer generation of skilled workers will retire within the next 5 to 15 years, creating the need for an estimated 10 million new workers by 2020.

Alan Burton, vice president for human resources at Cianbro Corp., a Maine-headquartered construction company that employs millwrights, pipefitters, iron workers, and electricians, says, “Generally, large manufacturers have a long-term workforce, but it’s an aging workforce. A large number of people are getting close to retirement and there aren’t enough new skilled workers to replace them.”

Fostering Training

Another strategy to attract the next generation of workers is a concept employers have used for centuries – the apprenticeship and its cousin, the internship. Their value has never been so significant and appreciated; young people are exposed to the exciting opportunities in manufacturing while companies have a chance to recruit, evaluate and hire needed employees. Manufacturers should institute these programs or other training initiatives to introduce high school students to careers in the trades.

Companies also should tap the knowledge of their aging workforce as these highly-skilled workers can play a training role both within and outside an organization. Climax Portable Machine Tools in Newberg, Ore., for example, instituted a cross-training program that features senior machinists training and acting as mentors to junior employees, and established an in-house training program to help reverse the attrition of highly trained machinists and to keep them current with the new skills necessary.

Other older machinists act as advisors to instructors at local community colleges to assist them in teaching the newest machining techniques and helping with curriculum planning. By recognizing the value of these workers, Climax strengthens both its own internal processes, and reputation within the community and with customers.

Overhauling Manufacturing’s Image

All of the campaigns and programs described here can help change young people’s minds about manufacturing – if they hear about them. We must constantly inform the media about all of these exciting initiatives with energetic public information campaigns, work with them to help tell these stories to the public – and convince young people dream jobs are there for the taking.

It’s also one of the missions of the NBT: Spark interest among young people in the industry and help revitalize the future of manufacturing in America. The NBT utilizes its resources in local and national public awareness campaigns to spread the message that manufacturing is a viable career option. Information about those efforts and programs is available at

Young people need to know that both historically and moving forward there is a high demand and great future potential – including the opportunity to own and operate your own business – that comes with a career in the skilled trades.

Gerald Shankel is president and chief executive officer of Rockford, Ill.-based  Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA), a professional organization with more than 2,100 members working together to improve the metal forming and fabricating industry. Founded in 1970, FMA brings metal fabricators and fabricating equipment manufacturers together through technology councils, educational programs, networking events, and the FABTECH International/AWS Welding Show.  FMA also has a technology affiliate, the Tube & Pipe Association, International (TPA), which focuses on the unique needs of companies engaged in tube and pipe producing and fabricating.

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