Continuous Improvement -- Confronting Our Manufacturing Labor Crisis

Jan. 24, 2007
We need to show today's youth that manufacturing has a stable future.

We have all heard people say that there are no careers in manufacturing anymore, and we have all seen the articles in the mass media about the doom and gloom of employment in manufacturing. But in reality we currently have a skilled labor crisis, and it's projected to get even worse. Recently, the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that there will be 78 million people leaving the workforce over the next 16 years, and there will be only 48 million new entrants.

Because of the negative publicity and the widely held belief that there is no future in North American manufacturing, very few of these 48 million people entering the workforce will become the skilled knowledge workers that will be needed -- unless we all get involved in doing something about it now.

Manufacturing is widely thought to be the three Ds -- dirty, dark and dangerous -- with no long-term career opportunities. Most parents, school counselors, neighbors and friends are telling our school children today to stay away from manufacturing, even though there are many relatively high-paying jobs available in North America for them -- if they receive the training needed to become the knowledge workers of the future.

In addition to the input I have received from members of The Association for Manufacturing Excellence, I recently talked to people from the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), the Hobart Institute of Welding Technology and the Tooling and Manufacturing Association (TMA). I heard the same thing from all of them: The shortage of skilled manufacturing people is limiting the ability of North American manufacturers to service their customers and grow their businesses and is forcing many of them to outsource overseas. It's not just low-cost labor that is causing this exodus offshore, it's also the inability to find skilled knowledge workers or people with the basic skills needed to be trained for these positions.

Andre Odermatt, president of the Hobart Institute of Welding Technology, says that they graduate people with the welding skills necessary for certification on pressure vessels, food processing equipment, aerospace, etc., and that they place 100% of their graduates in relatively high-paying jobs. Many of the students are sent there by their companies and are paid while attending the program.

TMA's Bruce Braker says the registrations for their training programs for machinists, tool and die makers, CNC machinists/programmers and mold makers have declined 80% over the past five years, while their member companies are clamoring for knowledge workers with these skills.

SPI's Barbara Darby has the same story about the critical shortage of knowledge workers for molding and extruding operations, plastics machinery manufacturing and mold-making. Some of their members are now going overseas for their mold-making because of the skilled-worker shortages here in North America. SPI visits U.S. elementary, junior high and high schools to attract students to careers in the plastics manufacturing industry.

But it's really up to manufacturers to get involved with changing the image of manufacturing in North America and to show parents, schools and our children that pursuing a career in manufacturing today is not a dead end.

The National Association of Manufacturers, for instance, has developed the Dream It, Do It program; the SME has the Manufacturing is Cool program, and two technical colleges in Wisconsin have teamed up with UW Stout on the Gold Collar Careers program. This is a good start, but manufacturers must work with their local schools to get children interested in making things so they take the coursework necessary for manufacturing careers.

Ralph Keller is president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, an organization dedicated to cultivating understanding, analysis and exchange of productivity methods and their successful application in the pursuit of excellence. He has been an operations practitioner for the past 35 years.

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