OPINION: How to Fix the Skills Gap in the American Manufacturing Sector


The White House recently announced a $600-million investment in apprenticeship programs. The Administration hopes to strengthen ties between community colleges and private companies — and equip workers with the skills needed to secure good-paying jobs in growing industries.

This initiative could not come at a better time. Millions of Americans are unemployed. Yet in manufacturing alone, half a million jobs are going unfilled because firms cannot find qualified workers.

That skills gap will only grow as the millions of Baby Boomers staffing our nation’s factories retire.

The feds can’t address our nation’s shortage of skilled labor on their own. Private-sector firms — especially those in manufacturing — must also invest in training the next generation of workers. Indeed, without qualified staff fluent in the technology that runs today’s factories, manufacturers will not be able to survive.

Modern manufacturing is more than pulling levers and navigating forklifts throughout a plant. Consider the workflow of, say, an engineer at a facility making chairs.

In response to a new order, he’ll first use advanced mathematics to calculate the amount of steel that needs to be fed into the presser. He’ll have to choose the right combination of about half a dozen sheet types, each with a different weight, length, and thickness. Then he’ll operate, monitor, and perhaps fix the quarter-million-dollar machine that assembles the chairs. Even a minor mistake can yield major damage — and massive repair expenses.

Obviously, this requires an aptitude for mathematics and technology. Ironically, many folks with advanced college degrees would be lost in his place. For dozens of other skilled trade positions, including electromechanical maintenance specialists, injection molding technicians, and hand welders, the typical workday is similarly challenging.

These workers are rewarded for their efforts and their aptitude. A skilled machinist makes about $60,000 a year. Master welders can take home upwards of $200,000 annually.

With the potential for such high pay, why the dearth of skilled manufacturing staff? In part, it’s because aspiring workers don’t have the opportunity to develop the skills that lead to those lofty paychecks.

Vocational programs have been dying in schools. Between 1987 and 2010, the share of students enrolled in at least one technical education course in California dropped from 75 percent to just 29 percent. The Los Angeles unified school district has eliminated 90 percent of its shop classes.

Employers used to be able to bring inexperienced hires up to speed with on-the-job training. But as manufacturing has become more technologically sophisticated, the training needed to master a trade has grown too expensive and time-consuming for private industry to provide it.

Fortunately, many manufacturers, technical schools, and local and state governments have teamed up to help narrow the skills gap.

In Wisconsin, state leaders have included over $100 million for worker training in the 2013-15 budget. The Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship initiative has already enrolled more than 1,200 high school students. Another 500 will soon join them, thanks to legislation signed late last year by Governor Scott Walker.

Meanwhile, many of Wisconsin’s 9,400 manufacturers have partnered with secondary and post-secondary schools to offer hands-on apprenticeship programs. As part of an effort led by the Northeast Wisconsin (NEW) Manufacturing Alliance, my company, Green Bay-based KI Furniture, has brought in over 1,000 local students for plant tours and internships.

Wisconsin’s manufacturing industry now contributes about $50 billion to the state’s GDP. Wisconsin’s manufacturers grew at the seventh-best clip in the nation between 2012 and 2013 — adding more than 13,000 jobs in the process.

There’s a common perception that American manufacturing is in decline. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead, a shortage of qualified workers is holding American manufacturing back. Our nation’s public- and private-sector leaders must invest in closing that skills gap. If they do, an American industrial renaissance will follow.

Dick Resch is CEO of KI Furniture

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