Workforce.com

U.S. Manufacturers Face Skills Shortage

A leading business lobbying group pushes for science and engineering education.

September 6, 2005
A dearth of science and engineering workers threatens to diminish U.S. competitiveness and undermine the economy, according to a new report by the National Association of Manufacturers.

The group is calling for a national workforce strategy that includes improving high school math and science education, inspiring students to pursue high-tech jobs, reforming U.S. immigration policies to attract high-skilled foreign workers and increasing federal funding for basic research in engineering, math, computer and physical sciences.

Jobs requiring science and engineering education or technical training are going unfilled, even as the number of graduates in those areas declines, NAM argues.

“We need action and we need it quite quickly, if we’re going to head off what is already a looming 21st century skills shortage that is being felt in some workplaces today and will become increasingly acute in the future,” says NAM President John Engler.

Developing a “high-performance workforce” is the top concern of manufacturing executives, Engler says. By 2012, more than 40 percent of factory jobs will require a post-secondary education.

In that same year, the United States faces a 500,000 shortfall in engineers and scientists, Engler says. But the number of students earning bachelor's or master's degrees in science and technical fields has declined from one in six in 1960 to less than one in 10 in 2001. In 2000, there were 207,500 engineering graduates in China compared to 59,500 in the United States.

If these numbers don’t turn around, the United States will fall behind in the global economy, according to NAM.

“We are truly facing a competitive crisis with India, China and others,” says Randel Johnson, vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We have to take on this challenge in a direct manner.”

Meeting the challenge will require more than just bolstering workers’ science and technical skills, according to Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind. “What matters is whether one has the capacity to invent things the world didn’t know it was missing,” he says.

For the United States to stay competitive, it has to be the source of new ideas. He pointed to the iPod as an example. It’s manufactured in China but designed in California. This division of labor doesn’t bode well for people narrowly trained in technical fields. High-tech workers have to know fundamental science, understand marketing and sales and have empathy for customers.

“To be effective today as an engineer, you can’t be just a slide-rule-dictated technician,” Pink says. “The capacity to innovate comes from the skills of synthesis, from multidisciplinary thinking.” Such habits could be developed by adding history, art and English classes to curriculums dominated by calculus and thermodynamics.

While the United States grows domestic scientists and engineers, it will have to allow more high-skilled foreign workers into the country to meet job market demands.

Capping immigration ostensibly to protect U.S jobs is “counterintuitive,” says Johnson. “It’s wrong.” Ultimately it forces companies to send operations abroad, where they can be closer to talent.

--Mark Schoeff Jr.