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Why Manufacturers Can't Find the Workforce They Need

Factory jobs demand more math and science skills than most Americans possess. Meanwhile, young people have turned their backs on manufacturing.
August 22, 2012
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As the economy begins to climb out of the Great Recession, one sector—manufacturing—finds itself in a predicament. The country is awash in unemployed workers, but few have the skills that factories really need.

This skills gap has been widening for decades, but trends are converging to make the crunch especially severe. Technology on the shop floor is evolving quickly. This means that factory jobs demand more math and science skills than most Americans possess. Meanwhile, young people have turned their backs on the factory; manufacturing ranks dead last among career choices for 18- to 24-year-olds, one survey shows.

U.S. manufacturers are in a dilemma partly of their own making. They are the world's most productive, creating nearly 21 percent of the world's manufacturing output, and have done so by focusing on high-value, high-quality products stamped out on automated production lines. But, as a recent article in the Atlantic points out, manufacturing employment is lower than any time since the 1930s because the advanced factory has little need for entry-level workers with little education. Instead it needs tool-makers, millwrights and electronics technicians—exactly the kind of skills that the American education system no longer nurtures.

"It has been an emerging problem. We've seen it coming for the last three to five years, but now it's reaching critical mass. [Companies] just can't find the technological individuals who can do production to welding, the advanced skill sets," says Randy Wolken, the president of MACNY, a manufacturers' association in Central New York state. "For some companies it's a crisis, where they'll have 10 to 15 spots open despite high unemployment."

A 2011 survey of more than 1,100 manufacturing executives found that 67 percent had a serious lack of available and qualified workers, and that 56 percent expected the problem to worsen. The same survey said that 5 percent of manufacturing jobs are currently vacant because of a lack of qualified candidates. That translates to as many as 600,000 middle-class jobs with no one to work them.

Who is responsible for addressing this shortage is a matter of great debate. Colleges would have had to increase their graduation rates by 10 percent a year starting in 2008 through 2018 in order to meet America's overall need for highly educated workers, according to a study by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Six years from now, the study concluded, 63 percent of new jobs will need postsecondary instruction.

Some leading industry watchers, such as Intel Corp. founder Andy Grove and business school professor Peter Cappelli, say that much of the blame for insufficient talent rests with the companies themselves, which have shown a lack of foresight and evaded responsibility for a problem that they fostered.

Manufacturers, like many companies in other sectors, have scaled back apprenticeship and training programs because the payoff is uncertain: Workers don't stick with one employer for decades like they used to, and a factory manager may sponsor a star employee's machine-tool course only to see that worker get lured away by a firm across town.

But it isn't merely a question of who provides the training. The chasm between employees' current abilities and the trigonometry, calculus and programming skills needed to run today's machines may just be too great.

"Taking an unskilled worker and turning him or her into a journeyman tradesman or CNC operator would literally take years," says Gerry Ledford, a business consultant to many large manufacturers, in an email. CNC operators are workers who oversee computer numerical control machines, which are sophisticated, automated tools for cutting, drilling and shaping material.

Combine the skills deficit with a graying workforce, where many technicians are in their 50s and contemplating retirement, and U.S. factories face a serious lack of manpower.

What's needed, Wolken says, is for America's youth to realize that the modern factory is not the greasy, smoke-belching assembly line of their grandparents' generation. Today's factories are clean, well-lit and full of expensive machines where computer skills can be put to use.

"We don't see a lot of understanding of what today's advanced manufacturing jobs are about, and administrators in schools mainly push [students] into colleges but don't tell them about these careers where you can start with a two-year technical degree or even a certificate right out of high school. They're not even aware of what a modern factory looks like," Wolken says.

There is no easy solution to America's manufacturing bind, experts say. But most agree that the country has to build a new educational-industrial complex, starting with partnerships between manufacturers and the local high schools and colleges that feed them.

"If you are in a cluster of manufacturers in a particular area who are in the same industry, who is doing your training? You can't do it all yourself," says Tom Hilliard, a workforce specialist at the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City-based think tank. "There is a combination of on-site training and post-secondary training that is needed for most sustainable jobs."

David Ferris is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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