Wanted: Skilled manufacturing workers

Jan. 11, 2007
Nearly every day we hear about the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to global competitors.

John Engler
National Association of Manufacturers
Washington, D.C.

Less talked about, however, is the significant shortage of skilled U.S. production workers. Production workers, in this country, account for more than 70% of the 14 million manufacturing employees. A ready pool of intellectually agile, flexible, and skilled production workers is key to the success of U.S. manufacturing. Building and maintaining that pool is an ongoing challenge.

The 2005 Skills Gap Report commissioned by NAM and the Manufacturing Institute (the research and education arm of NAM) shows the depth of the current skilled-worker shortage. Among the findings: 90% of manufacturers reported a moderate to severe shortage of qualified skilled production employees such as machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors, and technicians; 83% reported worker shortages are currently impacting their ability to serve customers.

This skills gap represents a "perfect storm," where manufacturers attempting to fill factory floor jobs in the face of rising global competition see numerous, highly skilled Baby Boomers retiring. Over 46% of manufacturers consider "finding qualified workers" a serious concern, according to NAM's 2006 Small Manufacturers Operation Survey.

To ensure U.S. companies have an adequate and capable workforce going forward, several fundamental changes must take place. These include better training of current and future workers; improving perceptions of manufacturing as a career; and supporting visa policies that help retain and attract the best and brightest from abroad.

A nationwide manufacturing certification program from the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC), for example, aims to prepare a workforce of "industrial athletes." The program works closely with assessment centers, community colleges, and corporate training centers. It incorporates industry-designed and federally recognized manufacturing standards. Equipped with fundamental manufacturing know how, from basic IT and maintenance awareness, to problem solving and teamwork, workers will have the agility to keep pace with emerging technologies. The program also lends credibility to manufacturing as a profession and helps employers identify qualified, high-performing employees.

A recent Manufacturing Institute initiative called Dream It. Do It. employs regional alliances of public schools, businesses, community colleges, and civic groups. The idea is to inform young people about exciting careers in modern manufacturing and help them prepare for the growing technical demands of the workplace.

Manufacturing is the backbone of the American economy, which today is the world's strongest. We will only keep that position by building a generation of highly qualified industrial employees. The above initiatives demonstrate NAM's dedication toward this goal. I invite manufacturing companies to work with employees and career centers to support these initiatives.

The National Association of Manufacturers (nam.org) is the nation's largest industrial trade association, representing small and large manufacturers in every industrial sector and in all 50 states.

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