Bridging the Skills Gap: The New Age of Manufacturing
In central North Carolina, community leaders have noticed a trend that’s impacting manufacturers all over the country; there aren’t enough workers who possess the skills needed to fill open positions.
So what did they do about it? Randolph County’s local community college, area chamber of commerce and public school system joined forces with several nearby manufacturing partners to create Apprenticeship Randolph, an apprenticeship program for modern-day manufacturing professions.
Apprenticeship Randolph illustrates one way that community partners can come together to meet the challenges posed by the current manufacturing skills gap. But where does this skills gap come from? How are educators and industry leaders adjusting their approaches in order to train talented workers and match them with opportunity?
The Big Picture
Since the 1970s, American manufacturing has become increasingly complex and computerized. As a result, workers have needed to acquire new skills in order to continue their work in this sector. At the same time, cultural consensus solidified around the value of obtaining a four-year degree. Though the argument is far from settled, many civic and educational leaders continue to claim that a bachelor’s degree is the ideal educational threshold for all.
Since the typical university model of education prizes broad-based knowledge over vocational specialization, learning a computerized trade doesn’t carry the same prestige as studying computer science. This means that manufacturing positions have become middle-skill occupations in a labor force defined primarily by workers who are either highly skilled and uninterested or under-skilled and ill-equipped to perform the tasks required of contemporary factory workers.
But what if our idea of education was broad enough to include the notion that specialized training in manufacturing was on par with a college degree?
How can manufacturing leaders out-maneuver the skills gap?
Bridge the Interest Gap
Many industry experts believe that an interest gap underlies the skills gap. A stigma seems to have developed around careers in the field of manufacturing. To counteract the notion that factories provide dirty, hazardous and low-skill jobs, industry leaders are getting creative.
For instance, take BotsIQ. This Pennsylvania-based organization hosts robotics competitions for high schoolers. Teams are sponsored by manufacturers in their area who help them master the skills necessary to create and pilot their battling bots. Students learn important STEM skills while making contacts that often lead to apprenticeships, jobs and interest in full-fledged careers.
Invest in the Training that Workers Need for the Automation Age
Some writers argue that the skills currently found in the talent pool are actually congruent with the manufacturing industry’s needs, as long as they invest in training workers for plant-specific operations. Recession-era hiring patterns may have allowed manufacturers to become particularly choosy about their recruitment practices, and they may need to break that habit. They can change tack by no longer limiting their talent search to workers who already possess experience with the specific machinery and techniques that they will use on the job.
Additionally, trends toward automation continued during the economic recovery. Greater automation has increased demand for increasingly specialized skills subsets. If managers are having trouble filling open jobs that require in-depth training, it’s worth asking whether it’s reasonable to expect to hire somebody who already has these skills or if a certain amount of training should be factored into the initial hiring costs.
The Bottom Line
The nationwide skills gap in the manufacturing field won’t go away overnight. The mismatch between the jobs available in today’s highly efficient factories and the general talent pool means that we have a lot of work to do. As we see with Apprenticeship Randolph, stakeholders such as community partners, educators and manufacturers can come together to foster inspiring talent pipelines that will recast manufacturing for future generations.
In the meantime, manufacturers will have to make strategic decisions about how they alter the public’s perception of their industry, how they retrain their existing employees for new positions and how they manage their workforce.