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Facing the Skills Gap Head on

April 16, 2013

Today, American manufacturers are facing a growing challenge: companies have open jobs and can’t find applicants with the necessary skills to fill them. These unfilled jobs are primarily in the skilled production category including machinists, welders, industrial engineers, and industrial machinery mechanics.

This is the skills gap. Simply put, it’s excess demand for skills and an insufficient supply of skilled workers.

Recent expansion in manufacturing has played an important part in supporting and strengthening the overall economy — and it’s generally expected that manufacturing will continue to play a crucial role in the future of our country’s economy. It’s vital that there are enough of the right workers in the right jobs for continued growth… but why aren’t there?

Sometimes jobs disappear in one sector of the economy for good, while other sectors expand so quickly that the available number of qualified workers isn’t able to keep up. There’s often such fast and progressive use of “new” technology that schools and training programs can’t stay as current as they need to. Another contributing factor to the shortfall of skilled factory workers is the aging of the manufacturing workforce and the resulting retirement of baby boomer employees.

And once baby boomers retire, there are fewer younger employees to take their place. Why? Maybe it’s partially about perceptions. For years, young people have been told that manufacturing jobs are headed overseas, or that these types of employment aren’t a worthwhile educational investment. This just isn’t true anymore. Younger workers also tend to lean toward big companies and corporations, not understanding that small businesses offer a great place to succeed.

SOLUTIONS

Workforce and education programs that link the training of participants to the needs of employers are the best solution. Some community colleges already do this through specially-designed courses, internships, and apprenticeships.

Along that same line, another effective way to address the problem is for local leaders to join forces to organize industry partnerships. Working with a group of philanthropic funders or a community college, for example, leaders define skill requirements for an industry — then design a strategy to address current, as well as long-term, needs.

Some local colleges are beginning to do just that. Monroe Community College, in Rochester, NY, utilizes such community involvement. The school partners with local individuals and businesses to develop innovative, strategic initiatives to support economic development and training. Finger Lakes Community College, with campuses throughout upstate New York, offers workforce opportunities in a variety of counties. As a member of the RTMA, we also work with local community colleges on training students and bringing more people into the industry.

Until more young people realize the opportunities arising in the manufacturing industry and take steps toward careers in that field, the shortage of highly skilled workers will only increase.

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