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79 Percent

79 percent. That is the portion of AMBA members who assert that the principal challenge they currently face is finding skilled employees. This, according to the organization’s annual report that polls members on the status of the industry. To put that statistic into perspective, 30 percent of those polled reported that attracting new business held the same level of importance. This equates to almost 3 times as many respondents who feel that it is easier to grow their business than it is to find employees. All the while, mold makers are faced with rising material costs, unprecedented global competition, and impatient customers is a troubling figure.

The fact that there is a skills gap cannot be denied. Not only is it increasingly difficult to find and retain an experienced workforce, but the traditional avenues for education are all but gone. In the past, if you were a young person possessing some level of talent and promise, yet you didn’t want the life of a desk jockey that can come with a university degree, you could find your path in some type of industrial trade.

While nearly all skilled trades are facing skills gap issues, many have been able to persevere simply based on necessity. If you are looking for an electrician or plumber, you will still find an acceptable level of competition throughout the US. (You cannot, as of yet, send your house offshore to have a new toilet installed.) The same cannot be said for mold-makers or anyone else in the tool & die trade. These skill sets are rapidly disappearing at an alarming rate, yet there remains a massive domestic industry where these highly skilled individuals are desperately needed.

So, who, or what’s to blame for this situation? Well, that question is not easily answered, but education plays a major role. As our economy shifted away from a manufacturing based system trades and industrial teachings fell out of favor in every educational setting. With community and technical colleges all across the country slashing industrial trades programs in favor of business based alternatives, the writing was on the wall, but no one was reading it. High school programs such as: metals, welding, carpentry, electronics, etc. have also fallen prey to budget cuts and have been phased out to make way for more business or technology savvy replacements.

The irony of course is, that you need a business sense to succeed at any career, and modern industrial and manufacturing jobs are saturated with technology. However, these facts seem to have gone unmentioned in this battle and very little support is available from the outside. With celebrities like Mike Rowe and initiatives such as “Close the Gap,” from the Manufacturing Institute, there has been a slight movement toward placing importance on skilled trades, but it has yet to initiate any real change. Also, while many skilled trades are not able to be outsourced, the ones that are continue to become more susceptible to global competition. These careers seem to have been abandoned by the mainstream altogether.

There are some educational success stories out there though, and the future is not yet written. Right here in Wisconsin there are several programs at the high school level that have found success in bringing industrial education back into the classroom. Cardinal Manufacturing in Strum, WI and Northwoods Manufacturing in Hurley, WI are both exceptional examples of what industrial education can achieve. Both programs act as student run businesses with little strain on the school district’s budgets. Ideally, we would see these programs in the majority of high schools in the near future, however this does little to address the current shortfall in skilled mold-makers.

With education and outside support waning, what can we do? Some have advocated brining people back from retirement in an effort to address this issue. This is just kicking the can down the road for the next group to deal with. While there is very real value in the knowledge and experience of those who have put in the time, it does nothing in the way of the future of the industry. The only way that American mold-making will endure this issue is by training replacements in-house. Eschewing the traditional apprenticeship model in favor of a more streamlined and completely contained program may be the only option left for the mold-making and tool & die industries to survive.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the tool & die trade will lose 13% of its total employment over the next 10 years. That equates to over ten thousand jobs lost. While the plastics industry is a booming figure in American manufacturing, we might as well be advocating the practice of offshore tooling if we are not addressing this widening gap in skilled labor. The plastics industry as a whole enjoys a trade surplus of over $10 billion while the mold market suffers from a $1 billion deficit. A great deal of this money will never return stateside. But, if we do nothing to pass on the expertise of the mold-makers we currently have, that deficit will only get bigger and soon there will be no alternative to offshore tooling.

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