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Powerful Partnerships Can Close the Talent Gap for Good

April 7, 2020
There are layers of multiple, complex problems that communities can only fix together.

Our collective efforts to close the talent gap in manufacturing have been like trying to fill a bathtub with the drain open. Think of the time, money and resources we’ve invested in programs, solutions, groups, reports, and initiatives over the past 20+ years – both in our companies and in our communities. And yet we still don’t have the skilled workers we need to grow manufacturing into the future.

Half a million manufacturing jobs sit empty across the U.S. right now. And that’s projected to rise to 2.4 million over the next eight years. Our talent problem is so significant that even COVID-19 unemployment isn’t going to wipe it away. When we rebound and rebuild from this tragic pandemic, we will then face a demographic time bomb we all know is coming. More than a quarter of all manufacturing workers will retire over the next decade, and much smaller generations are coming up behind to replace them. This will cause a steep decline in the number of available workers—leaving manufacturing fighting for a slice of an ever-smaller pie.

Why can’t we just plug the bathtub? Sadly, our talent pipeline is broken. There are layers of multiple, complex problems that we can only fix together. As companies, communities and leaders, we need to engage in the much broader, harder work of getting to the root of the talent problem and causing systemic changes, together. Otherwise, our efforts will continue to go down the drain.

Here’s the problem. What good is changing young people’s “dark, dirty, dangerous” perception of manufacturing if they can’t afford training? What good does training do if the skills expire rapidly in an Industry 4.0-fueled future? What good does cutting-edge training do if transportation is broken? What good is transportation if there’s no affordable child-care? And so on…

If we want to improve infrastructure, remove barriers, supercharge education, connect the dots, and focus the funding, we need to bring everyone together. And we need to do it locally, where all these problems live.

That’s what the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association did when it worked with the state to build a web of 17 Sector Partnerships to tackle systemic workforce issues in manufacturing. We’re in early days, but we’re already seeing real change take root. Why? Because these partnerships are led by people who know the industry best: local manufacturing leaders. They set the agenda and drive the solutions. Everyone needed to make change is at the table: manufacturers, community groups, funders, non-profits, education institutions, and more. And everyone at the table is focused on driving real results that we can measure.

Powerful partnerships like this are the only way to fix the talent gap. This isn’t a program-by-program problem. This requires rethinking how the entire system engages with itself. It means tapping into new populations of talent. It means building German-style apprenticeship programs that attract and keep students. It means reinventing manufacturing education for a future fueled by innovative technology.

And while manufacturing leaders and communities work together on all of this, it obviously doesn’t mean the rest of us sit idly by and wait. There’s much work to be done inside our companies, too. I recently hosted an IndustryWeek webinar where I gave manufacturing executives 10 things they can do to alleviate their workforce issues.

Things like: Be as innovative with your recruiting as you are with your products and services. Actively recruit new people from new places to boost diversity—so your plant looks like your community. Build a people-first workplace culture so your employees tell everyone your company is a great place to work. Invest heavily in online and virtual reality training to grow your own talent and stay ahead of the rapidly decreasing half-life of knowledge. And, of course, join a Sector Partnership. Or if there isn’t one in your community, start one.

This kind of radical change takes time, enormous dedication, and intense collaboration. But if, and when, we get it right, the upside is incredible. Our manufacturing industry can be a global destination for the best companies and the brightest people. We have a lot of work to do to get there. But the good news is, if we work together, we can finally plug the drain.

Ethan Karp is president & CEO, MAGNET (the Manufacturing and Growth Network), an Ohio Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

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