Skills gap? Who cares?

Dec. 21, 2004
Would the apathy that greets manufacturing problems occur in any other sector?

Would the apathy that greets manufacturing problems occur in any other sector?

The National Assn. of Manufacturers and Grant Thornton LLP recently released the results of a skills and competitiveness survey of 4,500 manufacturers. Their findings point to long-term problems for American manufacturers:

  • 88% are experiencing a shortage of qualified workers in at least one category.
  • 73% are having difficulty improving productivity or upgrading technology because of employees skills deficiencies.
  • 60% report that their current workers lack basic math skills.
  • 55% find serious deficiencies in workers basic writing and comprehension skills.
  • 50% have found it difficult to empower employees to take on more line responsibility.
These numbers, unsurprising as they are to many in manufacturing, ought to have sent a shock wave through the news media. That they didnt underlines one of manufacturings enduring problems in the U.S.: invisibility.

Think, for example, what might happen if any other major sector of the economy -- say, the health-care industry -- were so imperiled by a shortage of skilled labor. Headlines in newspapers and newsweeklies would blaze about an impending health crisis, blue-ribbon panels would be established, and solutions would be debated on Sunday-morning talk shows. The "crisis" might not have the sex appeal or staying power of an O.J. Simpson trial, but it would still receive its 15 minutes of fame.

Yet a labor shortage of growing proportions in manufacturing -- a sector that represents nearly one-quarter of U.S. GDP, just as it has since World War II -- doesnt even rate a mention in most of those august newspapers and newsweeklies.


Part of the problem is the diversity of U.S. manufacturing. Unlike some economies, which have only a narrow range of industries, America enjoys a manufacturing base that runs the gamut from potato chips to silicon chips, producing a dazzling array of goods that range from steel to computers to luxury goods. While this diversified portfolio of manufacturing prowess is undoubtedly good for the economy, it often makes manufacturing seem too broad for some journalists to compress into a two-line head and a six-inch story.

The other part of the problem, however, is manufacturers themselves. For all their worry about skills gaps and labor shortages, most U.S. manufacturers dont make much of an effort to educate their communities or even their own employees about the importance of manufacturing to the national and regional economies -- or how a skills gap could threaten U.S. competitiveness and, ultimately, its standard of living. How many of your own employees, for instance, know the following manufacturing facts:

  • 90% of all private research and development is done by manufacturing companies.
  • The average manufacturing salary is 89% higher than that in retail.
  • Manufacturing generates 4.5 times as many secondary (supporting) jobs as retail.
  • Manufacturing has outperformed the service sector in productivity gains by a three-to-one margin annually during the last decade.
Give yourself a pat on the back if your employees know even three of these facts. If they dont, give them this column. Either way, though, dont complain to pollsters or anyone else about a shortage of skilled labor until youre ready to educate your employees, neighbors, and community about what your companys success -- and the success of manufacturing in general -- means to their quality of life. And to those manufacturing executives who say theyre too busy for this kind of outreach, I have just two words about the origin of the manufacturing skills gap:

Its you.

Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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