The Bureau of Labor Statistics now tracks the value of manufacturing-related skills.

The Manufacturer's Agenda: Fixing Our Workforce Education and Training Mistakes

April 11, 2014
  After decades of ignoring manufacturing and production knowledge and skills development, the U.S. is starting to pay attention. National programs to recruit students to consider manufacturing careers are gaining traction. Bureau of Labor Statistics is tracking value of manufacturing-related skills.

It seems we've finally concluded that we've gotten workforce education and training all wrong for the past two decades, and it's time to fix it. Lots of theories exist for the whys and wherefores of our missteps, but I think it boils down to one: We had devalued the manufacturing sector generally, and production work -- even skilled production work -- specifically.

During the '80s and '90s, our business and public policy leaders placed their bets on creating the "post-industrial" economy comprised of "higher-value-added" work. In this vision, all kids would go to college, learn a profession and, ultimately, earn high wages. Our new economy would be built on services and knowledge and finance, not on what was viewed -- incorrectly even then -- as mere brawn on the factory floor.

What they didn't understand was that production work also would evolve. While they weren't paying attention, manufacturing innovated and production grew more sophisticated, requiring new skills, knowledge of new technologies and more smarts.

Our education system -- looking the other way with the blessing and encouragement of other business and public policy leaders, regrettably including too many manufacturing business leaders -- not only failed to keep up with the needs of fast-changing production processes; they all but dismantled the infrastructure that should have evolved to address it.

Meanwhile, academic achievement was touted as the road to personal and national growth, with federal statistics measuring the relative earnings of each academic degree -- and declaring those not achieving academically were doomed to the lower percentile of wage-earners.

The value of non-academic credentials often required for manufacturing employment -- certifications, licenses, as well as on-the-job training, internships and apprenticeships -- wasn't … even … measured.  

Now we're playing catch-up.

Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics began to analyze and report data about non-academic knowledge and skills development, albeit in an addendum to the standard "Earnings and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment" chart.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Census in January released "Measuring Alternative Educational Credentials: 2012," which recounts progress in identifying how this type of education and training "fit[s] in the larger structure of a capable twenty-first century workforce." Their finding: "Millions of people use alternative educational vehicles to obtain learning and skills that have real labor market value and returns."

Though manufacturing is only one industry explored in the government statistics and reports, these efforts point us in the right direction: toward valuing the knowledge and skills of -- and respect for -- our nation's skilled production workers.

Manufacturing executives should applaud and encourage this type of research and reporting.

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