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Manufacturer's Agenda: Toward a New Skilled Workforce Shortage Solution

Nov. 7, 2013
Solving the skilled workforce challenge requires that we treat production workers with the respect of professionals.

It seems several manufacturing organizations are beginning to rally around another solution to one of manufacturing's most vexing problems: that of recruiting people to work in factories. The new effort is an extension of an earlier one, which set out to change society's perception of manufacturing work -- and which, after over a decade, has had no discernible effect on alleviating the problem.

In the earlier iterations, the thinking was that too many people viewed manufacturing jobs as low-paying, "dumb, dirty, dangerous and disappearing." With videos and tours of clean, high-tech factories, we've attempted to paint a new picture. To counter the notion that manufacturing jobs offer low pay, we've highlighted statistics showing that manufacturing jobs on average pay higher salaries than jobs in other sectors. To counter the misperception that manufacturing jobs require little in the way of skills, training or education, we've stressed that STEM skills are critical to obtaining a high-paying, clean, safe, exciting manufacturing career. To dispel the notion that manufacturing is disappearing, we cite statistics that show hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs are going unfilled. We've targeted these efforts to parents and high-school guidance counselors, who've been steering kids to college and away from manufacturing.

The new iteration focuses on changing the perception of manufacturing work by renaming it. The Association for Manufacturing Technology, noting that the term "workforce" doesn't speak to the more intellectually demanding nature of factory work, has coined the term "smartforce." Meanwhile, Harry Moser of the Reshoring Initiative suggests that we begin referring to the "midskill" occupations as professions and the workers as professionals as is done in Germany and Switzerland. No mother wants her children to grow up to be workers, he says. She wants them to be professionals. Besides, he adds, "as manufacturing skilled workers take on more mental and less physical responsibilities, the terminology is increasingly appropriate."

I have no argument with these efforts and admire the leaders who are behind them. But I fear they may be directed at the wrong people and don't explicitly go far enough. We need to challenge manufacturing leaders' perceptions of production work, and to convince them not only to use a new term, but to change how they lead. 

The real and lasting solution to our skilled workforce challenge -- and society's perceptions about factory work -- will come about when the majority of manufacturing leaders lead production professionals with the respect of professionals. For two successful examples, turn to "The Value of Labor."

Find comprehensive coverage the nation's chronic skilled workforce shortage and solutions at

And one more thing: The solution starts with you.

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