Skilled Worker Shortage

Editor's Page -- Reversing U.S. Manufacturing's Skilled-Worker Challenge

New thinking is required to address the skilled-worker shortage.

Numerous reports over the past several years have identified some of the reasons the manufacturing sector's skilled worker shortage exists, but I have a nagging feeling that we're not defining the problem completely, and therefore we're arriving at solutions that address only parts of the problem.

We've tried to combat manufacturing's negative stereotype through public relations campaigns; to change our education system so that it meets manufacturers' unique needs; and to encourage government and manufacturers to fund manufacturing training to ensure a supply of workers.

Still, we're faced with a shortage. What are we missing?

Let's consider a few possibilities:

Job security and flexibility: Experts and experience have shown us that many of the manufacturing jobs that have disappeared -- either shipped offshore or automated -- have not prepared workers for the new jobs that are being created. Certainly such concerns pervade every sector of the U.S. job market. But for a specialized, skilled production or craft worker, that reality exacts a higher price. Marketing, finance and IT workers, for example, can more easily transfer skills and expertise to other sectors of the economy with little retraining and even the possibility of higher pay. A welder, a machinist or a wood worker faces the prospect of being forced at some point to retrain for a completely new job and start over at a low-paying entry-level position.

Skill certification and retraining programs will help, but they won't change the fact that an employee's chances for uninterrupted career advancement are better in a sector where employment is growing or in a career that is more flexible.

Opportunity and wages: While manufacturing leaders point to statistics showing that the manufacturing sector offers the highest pay in the private sector, a report in 2001 found that the reason employees leave manufacturing is for higher pay.

Could it be that higher pay is not the only reward today's employees seek?

Perhaps they're looking for a position that gives them a sense of contributing to a greater cause than the profit line? A sense of self- and peer respect that comes with a position that encourages self-management and input into how work gets done? Or perhaps the wages, though good, are viewed as self-limiting. Upward mobility is the American dream, and it was once associated with factory jobs. No longer. Indeed, they now represent just the opposite -- downward mobility. Union contracts recently negotiated at several high-profile companies call for two-tiered wage rates, mandatory overtime, and reductions in retirement and health care funding -- even as the companies are reporting near-record-breaking revenues and profits.

Why wouldn't we expect bright high-school students to choose a job where the more effectively they work, the more pay they can earn? Where the future looks better not bleaker?

IndustryWeek has written about individual companies that have addressed some of these additional causes of the skilled worker shortage. They've empowered their workforces to continuously improve and manage their work, invested in training, and shared the rewards of productivity gains. Some companies work hard -- a few even promise -- to not dismiss employees when productivity improves. Instead, they're committed to growing the business and bringing in work that is both profitable for the company and keeps skilled workers gainfully employed. If all U.S. manufacturers valued their workforce this way, we'd make great strides in changing manufacturing's outdated image and reducing our skilled worker shortage.

Patricia Panchak is IW's editor-in-chief. She is based in Cleveland.

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