Thought Leader -- Help Wanted

Thought Leader -- Help Wanted

With skilled job openings going unfilled, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers' Mark Tomlinson sees workforce development as a top priority for manufacturers.

The May 2009 survey -- "People and Profitability: A Time for Change," conducted by Deloitte, Oracle and the Manufacturing Institute -- found that of 779 responding companies, 51% reported moderate to serious shortages of skilled production workers today, while 36% reported similar shortages of engineers and scientists.

As the United States slowly emerges from the depths of a recession, Mark Tomlinson, executive director and general manager of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), sees the struggle to find highly skilled workers as perhaps the most pressing issue facing manufacturers.

"The [SME] believes that in the next three to five years this will be the single biggest topic we'll be discussing," Tomlinson tells IndustryWeek. "Once we 'recover,' the biggest challenge won't be the fact that we have an unemployed workforce. It'll be the fact that we can't fill the job needs that are available."

Tomlinson -- who has said that the wealth-creating "twin powers of innovation and manufacturing" are the keys to returning "the U.S. economy to its former glory" -- points to aerospace/defense and life sciences/medical devices as two of the brightest hopes for U.S. manufacturing in the future. However, according to the Deloitte survey, a whopping 63% of companies in each of those sectors reported moderate to serious job shortages.

"Manufacturers are looking for employees who are the opposite of the stereotypical factory worker. "
-- Mark Tomlinson, Society of Manufacturing Engineers

The crux of the issue: The recession has spawned legions of unemployed people who "need to be retrained and redeveloped so that they can become a higher-skilled workforce to support the needs of those innovative and creative companies" that will drive the economic recovery, Tomlinson explains.

"Manufacturers are looking for employees who are the opposite of the stereotypical factory worker doing repetitive, assembly-line work," Tomlinson says. "They are in need of 21st century workers with specialized technical training such as machinists, operators and technicians."

Tomlinson asserts that manufacturers need to evaluate the skills of their current workers, look ahead to products and technology that are on the horizon, and help workers develop the necessary skills to "transition from one sector to another as the economy continues to shift from one industrial sector to another."

"[Companies] need to think about agility versus longevity," Tomlinson says.

Tomlinson believes that manufacturers need to have "a sense of urgency in regards to retraining the workforce and making it easy for workers to go out and get that training." Professional associations such as SME can help manufacturers identify their workforce knowledge gaps and facilitate the necessary training.

However, Tomlinson adds that building a more agile, technically skilled workforce also might require manufacturers to try some "nontraditional" approaches to employee development. For example, Tomlinson suggests collaborating with other nearby manufacturers to tackle the challenge from a regional perspective.

"When things are busy, there tends to be this self-serving approach of 'I don't want to share with anybody because I need all my workers for this,'" Tomlinson explains. "But through collaboration, you can jointly understand what's needed for the region."

Another nontraditional approach to workforce development, Tomlinson explains, is using certification as a criterion for employment. "This gives you a worker who, in most cases, can transition to many different manufacturing sectors."

Last year, SME and the Manufacturing Institute (the research and education arm of the National Association of Manufacturers) announced that they are partnering to create a new skills certification system "with the potential to help millions of U.S. workers succeed in high-quality, middle-class jobs," according to SME. The system is designed to provide skills assessments, standardized curriculum requirements and portable credentials that validate the attainment of critical competencies required by industry.

The onus for workforce development doesn't just fall on manufacturers, Tomlinson adds. State and local governments need to play a more active role in making job training accessible and affordable to workers, he says.

"The community colleges are promoting that they have educational training available, but you don't hear enough about, 'Well, did you realize that you could get that [training] for free through a tax credit, a government grant or on a loan basis where you can pay it back after you get a job?'" he says. "There needs to be a more concerted effort to make it easy for the worker to get that training."

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