Training the next-generation manufacturing workforce: Here’s what’s ahead

By Curtis Williams | Aug 11, 2015

With the presidential candidates already in full swing, we'll be hearing a lot from them on the economy. And because raw economic data can be interpreted in different ways, one of them might say that things are just fine, while another might say the world is coming to an end.

Unemployment is a good example. The current rate of 5.3 percent is a pretty respectable figure, but if you take into account the percentage of the labor force that is only part-time, and if you consider that some amount of unemployed workers simply stopped looking, it causes more concern.

Another growing concern is highlighted by this observation: In August of 2014, there were 9.6 million people unemployed in the U.S., but at the same time there were 4.8 million job postings. So if all those help-wanted ads were filled, then the number of unemployed would have been half what it was, right? That's obviously not realistic, and the open jobs weren't all manufacturing-related, but the gap between the two figures is abnormally high, and the culprit causing the most worry is what's being called a skills mismatch.

The economy is still recovering and companies are hiring again, but in many surveys the number one challenge for managers is the inability to find workers with the right skill sets needed to make their company's product. It's a serious enough problem that, unless things change, it will negatively impact our global competitiveness for at least a decade.

The shortage exists primarily in what they're now calling "middle-skilled" workers, defined as skills requiring more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree. They include the trades and vocations such as machinists, electronics technicians, technical sales people, welders, and heavy equipment operators that are vital to the energy industry and other sectors of the economy.

Why the skills mismatch? In 2012, over half of skilled trade workers were 45 years or older. The Baby Boomers who have held these jobs are reaching retirement age, and, because of the physical demands of most of these types of jobs, they are retiring on time, rather than working much past 65 years of age. So those workers will need to be replaced. However, over the past several generations, there's been a belief that a college degree is the only path to success while vocational trades were looked down upon. High schools prepare their students for college now, and have shut down their programs for students that might have chosen a vocation instead.

Finally, although manufacturing is growing at a slower rate than other market segments, it's still growing, which means there will continue to be demand for production workers across the board -- both technical and non-technical.

The average blue-collar job used to require very little skill, but that's changed. Workers now need to know how to set up and change over automated equipment with control panels. That means they need to be computer literate and understand the technical parameters of the finished product. So with the boomers exiting the job market and a shortage of new skilled workers to replace them, plus a growing demand for technically middle-skilled employees, the employment gap was created. And it's estimated that by 2017, 2.5 million more middle-skilled jobs will be added to the economy.

Rectifying the skills imbalance in the labor market obviously won't happen quickly and won't be easy, but a host of programs and directives have already begun from coast to coast. Regardless of how we ended up here, solving the problem will be the responsibility of the corporations, policymakers (government), and the education system. Businesses need to assess their staffing needs well into the future. Schools need to respond to those needs and tailor a workforce with the right skills.

A recent Harvard Business School study listed nearly 200 programs to accelerate skills training. (Not listed is Salt Lake Community College's recent $2.5 million grant, details here.) Some are private but most of them are partnerships with business and schools, and financial contributions from local municipalities. On a micro level, every single job that can't be filled impacts a local economy with higher unemployment and less consumer spending. On a macro level, the availability of a trained, skilled workforce will always one of the top factors for a company that is considering an expansion into your city.

Curtis Williams has been in manufacturing management and operations for over 25 years. Contact him at