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The Hole in the Middle

Dec. 2, 2014
The "middle-skills" shortage lies at the heart of the skills gap, and it's up to manufacturing execs to take the lead to fix it.

The skills gap is impacting U.S. manufacturers’ businesses at many levels, but it’s the dearth of middle-skills workers that is most critical. The shortage of applicants for jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree is the absolute crux of the manufacturing skills gap, simply because of the sheer numbers of job openings at that level not being adequately filled.

And this middle-skills shortage is clearly hampering the manufacturing sector’s growth and undermining U.S. competitiveness globally.

Joe Fuller | Senior Lecturer | Harvard Business School

A new research report co-created by Accenture, the Harvard Business School and Burning Glass Technologies titled “Finding the Middle” analyzes this middle-skills gap and exhorts manufacturing leaders to lead the charge to close it.

“For too long we have accepted the cliché that America’s jobs machine is broken,” says Harvard Business School Senior Lecturer Joe Fuller, the report’s lead author. “Someone has to take the lead in restarting it, and business leaders are in the best position to take decisive steps to end the misalignment in our economy—millions of job postings alongside millions of unemployed. This is the single most important issue to strengthen U.S. competitiveness.”

Which middle-skills jobs are U.S. manufacturers finding hardest to fill? The companies that responded to the Accenture survey cited these as their top three:

Computer Support Specialist: 28%

Network/Systems Administrator: 24%

Customer Service Representative: 18%

Tactics to Close the Gap

The report outlines four strategies that manufacturing executives can take to close the middle-skills gap:

Map Future Talent Needs. The reactive approach to filling middle-skills jobs won’t cut it. Companies can and should join with other employers—for example, in their region or in their sector—to develop better forecasts of skills requirements. The report notes that this approach can be especially effective for subsectors that project demographic transitions in coming years, such as aerospace, oil exploration and electrical utilities.

Build the Talent Pipeline. The Accenture report recommends that manufacturing leaders apply supply chain management methodologies to the sourcing of middle-skills talent.

Reinvigorate Talent Development. Provide rigorous training; offer internships and apprenticeships; gear those programs toward retaining the candidates, so that when interns and apprentices complete their programs, they can step into full-time roles. Surprisingly, according to the Accenture survey, the respondent companies that offer internships and apprenticeships report that “only 44% of candidates are likely to be offered a full-time job the majority of the time.”

Develop Talent Pool Relationships. Manufacturers need to treat community and technical colleges—a primary source of middle-skills talent—as they treat other suppliers of critical inputs, the report recommends.

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