Although there's no such thing as an elixir for the ailments of American manufacturing, skill standards come pretty close. They help identify mismatches between the availability of skilled workers and demand -- an important step in easing the U.S.'s persistent skills shortage. They help companies focus their training programs and benchmark their progress in developing high-performance workplaces. They help schools determine what to teach. They help workers and students determine what they need to know to succeed in the increasingly competitive international marketplace. In short, they help boost the nation's productivity. Given all these and other benefits of skill standards, it's not surprising that individual industries, companies, employer organizations, unions, and state- and local-government agencies have been rushing to adopt them. But there has never been a set of uniform, nationwide standards in the U.S.'s leading job-producing sector: manufacturing. That soon will change. For nearly a year, the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC), the first voluntary partnership formed under the Congressionally created National Skill Standards Board, has been developing such standards. The first visible product of the council's effort -- a draft of its proposed "core" standards -- will be made public this month. To be made available through the council's Web site, www. msscusa.org, the draft will precede release of final core standards due by midyear. They'll come in two classes: work-oriented standards that describe critical elements of work common to all manufacturing, and worker-oriented standards that identify common capabilities workers must have to perform the work. By yearend, the council will follow with a second set of standards -- "concentration standards" documenting skills needed in particular areas of manufacturing such as production, quality assurance, and maintenance and repair. Next year MSSC plans to issue a third set -- "specialty standards" detailing skills needed for specific industry sectors. In many cases, the council will certify existing standards developed by individual industries and organizations. Describing the three types of standards, the chairman of MSSC's steering committee, John Rauschenberger, manager of workforce research at Ford Motor Co., likens them to a tree. "The core standards are the 'trunk,' " he explains. "They will describe skills needed by anyone who works in manufacturing -- regardless of the particular area of manufacturing they're in. The concentration standards will be the 'branches' of the tree. And the specialty standards will be the 'leaves.' " Formed in March 1998, the MSSC partnership includes some 120 companies, 40 unions and employer organizations, and 100 educational, training, and public-interest groups. The project is managed by the National Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing (NACFAM), an industry-led group based in Washington, and the AFL-CIO's Working for America Institute. Rauschenberger's 31-member steering committee makes the council's major decisions and oversees activities of committees on standards, framework and systems-building, skill-standards documentation, and marketing. By certifying standards already developed by specific industries, MSSC is following the process outlined by National Skill Standards Board Chairman James R. Houghton, retired chairman and CEO of Corning Inc., at MSSC's formation. The council's job, he declared, "is to be a clearinghouse -- not to reinvent the wheel." Indeed, says Rauschenberger, "We don't want to take anything away from groups that already have developed standards. We see our role as building a bridge to those standards." Many groups that have existing standards, he observes, sit on MSSC's committees. MSSC's work, Rauschenberger stresses, "is customer-driven" and aimed at "delivering a product" urgently needed in the manufacturing sector. "If we don't do this work now," he says, "companies and industries will fill the gap with their own standards, and be less interested in doing anything on a national level." Rauschenberger also indicates that MSSC hopes to put an ongoing system in place that will result in continuous updating of standards. Although this month's release of draft core standards will be MSSC's most watched accomplishment to date, the council has quietly completed two preliminary tasks. It has agreed upon a definition of a "high-performance manufacturing workplace" -- a three-paragraph statement that emphasizes decentralized decision-making, communication, flexibility, employee empowerment, safety, and teamwork. The council also has adopted a "standard for standards" that sets forth criteria for the forthcoming standards.