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Hands Across the Skills Gap: A Partnership for Success

Have we become a society that simply likes to disagree? With the current state of journalism and political discourse you would think that arguing is the only way we can still communicate. Yelling over the top of one another without actually learning or accomplishing anything. However, I thought for sure everyone was on the same page with regards to the very real skills gap in our manufacturing and trades industries. I, apparently, was wrong.

It seems there is a growing contingent of skills gap “deniers” out there claiming that with an unemployed work force there cannot be a gap. Well, this simply isn’t true. It is not a matter of opinion, the gap in skilled manufacturing and trades is a fact.

These voices state that it is entirely up to the employers to take workers and transform them into the labor force they need. This is a fantastic theory. In a perfect world, where you have unfettered access to time and resources you could train the perfect employee, having him/her work for your company for 35 years when, just before retirement, they pass their skills on to a worthy successor and ride off into the sunset… Wow, wouldn’t that be a wonderful scenario.

I agree that apprenticeship programs have dwindled to embarrassing levels over the past 20-30 years. This is in part due to employers getting tired of investing valuable resources on someone, only to watch them leave for higher pay offered at the places that didn’t invest in their futures by offering apprenticeships in the first place. This led to companies cutting out apprenticeship programs altogether and thus, making them partly responsible for the situation we are in today. But even if the apprenticeship programs come back, there are simply too few programs offered in educational institutions to cover the core learning needed to succeed.

Traditional trade schools and community colleges have been transformed into satellite business school outlets over the past few decades. This has shifted the funding funneling into these educational centers and caused many of them to abandon much of their trade curriculum. The pathways for successful apprenticeships have been lost in the transition of our economy from manufacturing to service based. In this transition, many of the basics for their instruction have gone with them. Classes in the math and science fields required to understand many of the operations needed for trades work have also fell by the wayside in an effort to churn out more “business savvy” graduates.

This is all peaking at a time when the efforts to reshore a great deal of American manufacturing are finally starting to take shape. With the global economy beginning to push wages higher in offshore facilities the time for companies to bring jobs back to America is now. This coupled with increasing transportation costs and advanced automation in manufacturing could be the “perfect storm” of events to rebuild our manufacturing infrastructure.

So you have to ask yourself, is this a time for bickering and finger pointing? No, it is not. This will take a great deal of combined effort and partnerships between businesses, colleges, and the government to assure that as these jobs increase in the coming years we have access to the workforce necessary. Not only fill the positions created, but to also fill the secondary positions as well.

Plastics injection molding is an excellent example. A great deal of new jobs are being created every day from reshoring efforts and this will inevitably create new jobs ranging from press operators to robotics engineers. However, what about the increased number of injection molds? The average age of a toolmaker in the United States is over 50, according to a 2012 Congressional study. (Canis) This is a field where many of the skills you need to be successful must be learned through a combination of basic machining skills typically taught at a trade school, and hundreds of hours of hands on learning as an apprentice. This is not an area where just a business or a school will come out as the deciding factor. It must be a partnership of everyone involved if we are to successfully navigate this matter.

But it is not just manufacturing that will take the hit if we do not address this issue. In a 2012 study conducted by EMSI, they found that 53 percent of ALL skilled trade workers were 45 years old and above, a figure that has surely risen in the years since first reported. (Wright) This isn’t just skilled manufacturing workers but; plumbers, electricians, carpenters, machinists, etc… this is a dangerous shortcoming potentially affecting our entire infrastructure in America.

The only way to be successful in navigating the mass retirement in the coming years by the older generations, is to first understand that the skills gap isn’t simply a matter of opinion and address it as the dire situation that it has become. We told our children for years that they had to get an education to be successful, this is still true. However, we must emphasize the importance of technical education and shake the stigma that manufacturing and skilled trades has become associated with. The advancement and betterment of a society is not typically carried out in a three piece suit.

Canis, Bill. The Tool and Die Industry: Contribution to US Manufacturing and Federal Policy Considerations. Research Report. Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2012. PDF online Document.

Wright, Joshua. "America's Skilled Trades Dillema: Shortages Loom as the Most-In-Demand Group Of Workers Ages." Forbes 7 March 2013: 1. Web.

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