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Manufacturing’s Mixed Messages Aren't Helping Close Skills Gap

Even as the industry promotes itself as a bastion of career stability and good pay, negative news sells the opposite story.

Are we making headway in closing the manufacturing skills gap?

The answer seems to be no. In their latest study of the U.S. manufacturing sector and its future workforce needs, the Manufacturing Institute and consulting firm Deloitte say the skills gap not only persists, but that the results “appear to highlight a widening gap between the jobs that need to be filled and the skilled talent pool capable of filling them.”

Specifically, projections cited in the 2018 study, released in November, suggest unfilled manufacturing jobs will grow from 2 million to 2.4 million between 2018 and 2028. It is the organizations’ fourth skills gap study.

In short, we seem to be sliding further from our goal, despite tremendous efforts on the part of many U.S. manufacturers and organizations that support U.S. manufacturing.

And those efforts are extensive. I recently returned from a Rockwell Automation event in which the manufacturer shared an update on the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing. It’s a program developed with ManpowerGroup that helps train returning military veterans for advanced manufacturing jobs. They look to be doing good work, and they are one of multiple groups trying to tap armed forces personnel returning to civilian life.

Moreover, there are dozens, perhaps tens of dozens of other efforts underway to attract more interest in manufacturing as a career, and to grow the needed skills: Efforts include outreach to students and parents, apprenticeships and other training programs, and more. I’ve been with IndustryWeek for 20 years and we have been detailing the challenge for every one of those years.

Despite being the focus of significant attention, manufacturing’s skills gap persists and is reportedly growing worse—although the perceived reasons for the gap have flexed with time. The 2018 Deloitte/Manufacturing Institute study shows that manufacturers believe finding the right skill set for advanced technologies is the No. 1 contributor to the talent gap, followed by students’ and parents’ negative perception of the manufacturing industry. In the 2015 study, retiring baby boomers were identified as the primary contributor.

In both studies, however, and in others, negative perceptions of manufacturing are cited as large contributors to the talent crisis. And this factor, I believe, is where we still have much work to do.

We are sending mixed messages.

On one hand, U.S. manufacturing is making every effort to promote itself as an industry that offers long-term career potential and good pay for talented individuals. And it has been true. The majority of respondents to our own annual IndustryWeek manufacturing salary survey consistently paint a picture of individuals who like their jobs, make good money and are long-term players in manufacturing environments.

On the other hand, well-known companies such as General Motors Corp., Harley-Davidson and HP Inc. have recently announced big layoffs or plant closings, and they join a long list of other manufacturers that have done the same. Those types of announcements gain vast amounts of attention without any effort—and I suspect they make a lasting impact.

I’m not suggesting these decisions are wrong. And I’m certain that many of them are a price we must pay as manufacturing undergoes a continuing and dramatic transformation. And I concede that manufacturing operations also are opening in the United States.

But I suspect the negative perception around manufacturing as a career choice has as much, if not more, to do with individuals questioning whether there is long-term career stability in manufacturing as it does with the mistaken belief (in many instances) that manufacturing is dark, dirty and dangerous.

It’s a conundrum, that’s for sure. I don’t have any answers, even after watching manufacturing’s talent gap play out over 20 years. There is no question we need to continue pursuing all those right moves that we are making now—the training, the engagement of non-traditional workers, the getting more people into a manufacturing environment to see the vast types of careers that fall under the umbrella of “manufacturing.”

It’s just hard not to see this as a challenge we’ll still be struggling with 20 years from now.

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