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Special Report: Training & Education

Help wanted, skills required

By Meghan Boyer

Manufacturers need workers and Americans need jobs, but a skills gap is keeping them apart

February 2012 - Despite more Americans without work in recent years, many fabricators and OEMs have struggled to fill available positions. The problem often is skills-related: The unemployed largely don’t possess the specific skills manufacturers need in their workforce. The result is Americans are looking for jobs, manufacturers are searching for employees and neither is able to find what they need easily.

The dichotomy, while it has created challenges for many people, has vaulted the need for more U.S. workers with manufacturing skills into the national conversation, with The Associated Press and other media outlets reporting on the situation.

“The national attention that manufacturing is starting to get allows someone out there to reconsider our field as desirable,” says Rolando Sanchez, director of business development at Miller Electric Mfg. Co., Appleton, Wis. “Any attention we can get on the industry and its potential to supply quality careers and opportunities to qualified individuals is beneficial.”

An aging workforce is part of the concern for some industry members, who want to know who will be among the next generation of workers and if they will be plentiful enough to fill the available positions. “There’s a great concern out there in companies with impending retirements that they are going to have a lot of positions open that they can’t fill,” says Gary Eith, dean of business and engineering technologies at Lakeland Community College, Kirtland, Ohio. “They’re already having difficulty filling certain positions, and it’s only going to get worse.”

There are an estimated 2.7 million manufacturing workers who are 55 and older and are expected to retire in the next 10 years, according to Jacey Wilkins, senior associate director of communications at the Manufacturing Institute, Washington, D.C.

Indeed, the average age of a welder is 55 years old, says Cindy Weihl, public relations manager for the American Welding Society, Miami. “They’re retiring at twice the rate that new workers are coming into the force,” she says.

Furthermore, a study by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte LLP found American manufacturing companies cannot fill as many as 600,000 skilled positions. Sixty-seven percent of manufacturers have a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers. Fifty-six percent expect the shortage will grow in the next three to five years, according to the study.

“There’s a worsening skills gap in manufacturing, and it is negatively impacting companies’ ability to grow and expand and be competitive,” says Wilkins.

Shift in interest, demographics
The increased attention that the national discourse on jobs and employment has placed on the manufacturing sector has helped buoy enrollment in different manufacturing-related programs.

“Part of the economy has helped push people into looking in other job areas,” and as a result, technical programs are filling up, says Jason Schmidt, senior customer training instructor at Lincoln Electric Co., Cleveland. The company’s welding school has been booked consistently four to six months in advance of classes, he says.

Enrollment in welding programs has increased also at Arizona Western College, Yuma, Ariz., with the number of students nearly quadrupling in the past decade, says Samuel Colton, a professor of welding at the college. In spring 2011, 220 students were in the program, he says.

In addition to positive news about growth in the manufacturing sector, the increase in interest among potential students is because of the success of past students, says Jeffrey Carney, a coordinator and associate professor of the welding programs at Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Mich. “We have excellent data on where our graduates are, how many of our students graduate each year, what their average salaries are, things like that,” he says, noting Ferris State has graduated more than 500 students from its Welding Engineering Technology Bachelor of Science program since 1986.

Who are the students filling these and other manufacturing programs? While many of the current generation of manufacturing workers are Caucasian men, a change is taking place slowly among the next generation.

“We’re starting to see a slow shift in the demographics to be more representative of the overall demographics of the U.S.,” says Sanchez. “We’re starting to see roles being filled with more diverse candidates,” notably Hispanic and female workers, he says.

As Hispanics comprise an increasingly larger portion of the overall U.S. workforce, it’s natural they also will represent a larger portion of students and workers in metalworking and manufacturing, says Eric Gearhart, director of development and research for SkillsUSA, a Leesburg, Va.-based organization working to ensure the United States has a skilled workforce.

Hispanics will make up nearly 15 percent of the civilian labor force by 2014, according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 2004 and 2014, the Hispanic workforce will increase by 7 million, from 19 million in 2004 to 26 million in 2014, according to the bureau.

SkillsUSA has experienced growth among Hispanic participants, with Latinos reaching 20 percent of member students, says Gearhart. Caucasian students are at 63 percent, African American at 14 percent, Asian at 1 percent, Native American at 1 percent and 1 percent other, he says.

Some people also have seen an increase in manufacturing interest among females. Miller has received more requests for female welding gear and sizes in its Arc Armor welding protection line, says Sanchez. “It speaks a lot about some of the demographic changes to the welding populace,” he says.

At St. Louis-based Thermadyne Industries Inc., a recent welding-related contest resulted in women representing four of the five winners in the individual category, says Bill Wehrman, marketing and communications for the Americas at the company.

Thermadyne’s Built With Class promotion asked students enrolled in welding instructional programs to either submit an essay describing why they are interested in welding or submit a welding project plan. In her winning essay, Aimee Bowman described why she chose to take a welding class: “I am currently taking welding classes to show girls who are younger than me that doing something that is male dominated is perfectly OK,” she wrote.

The female contest participants are very proud of their work, and often they are surprised when they become one of the better welders in the class, says Wehrman. “There seems to be a significant growth of women getting into the industry,” he says. “They make good welders.”

Maintain the momentum
To keep metalworking and manufacturing programs full of students, it’s important to pique their interest at a young age. “We really need to start exposing [manufacturing] to them at middle school age. It’s younger than what you might think,” says Jack Pennuto Jr., director of sales and marketing at Formtek Inc., Cleveland.

Manufacturers potentially can grab young people’s interest by relating the industry to hobbies and products they already like, says Pennuto. For instance, an engineer first designed the Apple iPod and then someone else determined how to manufacture it and the types of materials to use. All of those steps include potential jobs, he says.

Middle school is a good age to target students because they only are beginning to consider potential careers, says Weihl, adding it’s also the age when young people develop some of the hobbies they will carry into adulthood. “Even if they don’t make a career out of it, there are so many hobbies [that involve metalworking] if they are into cars, if they are artistic,” she says.

The American Welding Society and Lincoln Electric have teamed on a mobile welding trailer that will travel for 18 to 24 weeks this year targeting events with young people between 13 and 19 years old and adults seeking second careers, says Schmidt. The trailer, which was unveiled at Fabtech 2011, includes five welding simulators as well as interactive exhibits.

“We never had a way to expose more people to welding at a younger age, and now we can. I definitely think that’s going to help with the impact and raise the image of the industry,” Schmidt says.

Continued national awareness of the career potential the manufacturing sector holds also is important. “The Obama administration has tried to focus on manufacturing,” says Weihl. Last year, the president announced a partnership with industry groups, including the American Welding Society, that will provide 500,000 community college students with credentials to help them secure manufacturing jobs, she says.

Outreach in different forms is necessary because manufacturing continues to battle a negative perception. Some people perceive manufacturing jobs as dirty, grimy, unhealthy or unsafe, says Eith. “It’s not that way any more with robots and computers. Technology has changed work dramatically, has improved productivity and has changed the work environment,” he says.

Along with debunking myths about manufacturing, the industry needs to overcome the concern that it’s dying off, notes Pennuto.

A majority of Americans, 86 percent, believe America’s manufacturing base is “important” or “very important” to their standard of living, according to a Deloitte and Manufacturing Institute survey. However, there is a disconnect between people’s view of the importance of manufacturing and their view of who should be working in the sector.

“Survey results reveal that only one-third of parents would encourage their child to go into manufacturing, which translates into a major workforce pipeline issue. This, in turn, becomes a U.S. manufacturing competitiveness issue because we know that an educated and skilled 21st century workforce is the most important factor behind innovation and business success,” Emily Stover DeRocco, president of the Manufacturing Institute, said in a press release.

Historical perspective
The nation’s skilled labor issues have been developing for decades, says Gearhart. During World War II, the government created the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the G.I. Bill, which provided college education for returning veterans. “It created for the very first time in this country the notion that anybody could go to college, because up until then, going to college was a very elitist thing for most people,” he says.

Greater access to higher education began to be seen as the way to gain middle class status in the United States, says Gearhart. “We had free tuition at a lot of places, and so by the time you got into the early 70s, the notion was if you wanted to make it in America, you needed a college education,” he says.

Additionally, trained workers immigrated to the United States from other countries in the 50s and 60s, says Harry Moser, founder of the Reshoring Initiative, which is focused on bringing jobs back to the United States. This is one of the reasons the United States did not have to develop a strong apprenticeship program. “We had a strong surge and we were able to be a strong, dominating manufacturing power significantly because of those people without developing our own training system,” he says.

The original skilled immigrants either have retired or are retiring, says Moser. Few of those currently coming into the country have the needed skills. “Some of them get training, but they don’t come in trained, and we don’t do a good job of training them,” he says.

The Information Age further separated people from manufacturing, says Colton. “I think a lot of the American population has a big mental disconnect with the technologies that they take for granted and the manufacturing base that makes these possible,” he says.

It is good the industry is working to address the training and education issues, because left alone, the skills gap only will widen in the coming years, says Gearhart.

“We have to figure out a way of making sure young people know there are opportunities in skilled labor that they may enjoy and from which they may derive great satisfaction,” he says. “We just have to do a better job of letting them know that those opportunities are available.” FFJ

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