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Manufacturing's Muddled Message on the Skilled Worker Shortage

June 18, 2012

We've been seeking solutions to manufacturing's skilled worker shortage for so long, I have to conclude: Perhaps we don't understand the problem well enough to either effectively communicate our needs to the potential workforce or to change our hiring practices.

In my last column, I asserted that to solve the problem, executives must change how they value production employees. Since then, a close rereading of "Boiling Point?" -- the research report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute -- reinforces this point and suggests other steps we must take solve the problem.

First, the survey distinguishes between workforce segments, including unskilled production, skilled production, and two levels of engineers. The importance of this is apparent in the results: The biggest shortage is in skilled production workers.

The question is: Do you think the general populace knows this fact or understands its implications? I don't.

Further, I wonder whether many people confuse the skilled workforce shortage with the shortage of engineers. When I'm discussing manufacturing's skilled workforce shortage with people who should understand it, they often reply, "You mean the engineer shortage?"

These points suggest that the manufacturing community needs to understand and communicate the following two points:

  1. There are significant differences between low-skilled and high-skilled production work. If you don't understand the difference, get started by reading Jill Jusko's "For Manufacturing, Do the Math" in the June issue of IndustryWeek.
  2. The skilled-worker shortage and the engineer shortage are two problems that require different solutions.

Second, the report notes: "The changing nature of manufacturing work is making it harder for talent to keep up." This conclusion seems reasonable until you compare it to another finding: "many manufacturers depend on outdated approaches for finding the right people, developing their employees' skills and improving their performance."

Sounds like it's the manufacturers who are failing to keep up.

The takeaway? If you're still recruiting skilled production workers in the same way as you recruit low-skilled workers, it's time to start using techniques you use to recruit other higher-value personnel.

Finally, high-skilled work implies higher wages, yet the law of supply and demand has failed. Could it be that your compensation strategies haven't caught up? See "The Compensation Question" in the June issue.

We've battled the skilled worker shortage for too long, and we're bracing for an even bigger drought as increasing numbers of baby boomers retire. We need to dig deeper into why the problem persists and come up with better solutions. I hope this gets you thinking.

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