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Narrowing the Skills Gap

By Karen Haywood Queen Contributing Editor, SME Media

Technological gains, young ambassadors, apprenticeships help. But manufacturers’ training investment remains a problem.

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Jay Flores, global STEM ambassador at Rockwell Automation, shows students real-life examples of why STEM classes matter—in a future-focused booth at Rockwell’s Automation Fair in Houston, TX, in November. (Photo courtesy Rockwell Automation)

In some localities, hiring a skilled manufactur-ing worker can take up to a year. By 2025, up to 2 million manufacturing jobs are projected to be unfilled. Rather than continue to bemoan the problem, manufacturers are taking a multi-faceted approach to bridge the gap—not only for next year but also for 15 years down the road.

Part of the answer: reaching out to children as young as nine to build excitement and get the next generation interested in smart manufacturing.

“At a young age, students are curious,” Jay Flores, global STEM ambassador at Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation, said. “They’re asking questions. They haven’t yet said, ‘I’m not a math person,’ so we want to get them before they have those doubts or they lose that passion for learning and curiosity.”

Rockwell Automation is reaching out beyond millennials in a partnership with First Robotics supporting First Lego League programs for kids in grades four through eight. Some of those kids end up working at the company down the road. Over the past five years, Rockwell Automation’s interns have included young people with First Lego League experience, he said.

“That’s very exciting to see and it’s helping build our future pipeline of talent that’s coming in,” Flores said. “We view it as a recruiting tool. We view the students as they’ve got both the technical and the soft skills that we’re looking for that they gain from this experience. It’s more than just the robot.”

To attract new trained workers, manufacturers also are offering scholarships and apprenticeships.

For current employees, companies are providing on-the-job training and education reimbursements to deepen and broaden their skills.

Manufacturers are partnering with each other, with local governments and with local community colleges to get the word out that a job in manufacturing can be both exciting and financially rewarding.

Advancing technology is part of both the solution and the problem.

Deloitte studies problem

Nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will become available by 2025 but because of the skills gap, 2 million will remain unfilled, according to Deloitte’s Skills Gap in US Manufacturing 2015–2025 outlook. Six out of 10 open production jobs are unfilled because of a talent shortage and 84% of executives agree there is a talent shortage in US manufacturing.

There are several issues driving the problem.

The big Baby Boom generation is retiring: The median age of the manufacturing workforce rose from 40.5 years in 2000 to 44.1 years in 2011, according to Tooling U-SME research.

Often there is a geographic mismatch with people looking for jobs but not in the localities where jobs are available. Increasingly, workers in smart manufacturing need additional skills.

“Even as companies rebounded after the recession, the people who were available for work didn’t have the right skills,” Jeannine Kunz, vice president of Tooling U-SME, said. “On one end, Baby Boomers were exiting the market. On the other end, those who are unemployed don’t have the right alignment of skills for the jobs that are open.”

“Our biggest challenge is finding technical workers,” Jessica Jones, learning management and organizational development specialist at Conductix, said.

Conductix has US plants in Omaha, NE, and Harlan, IA, as well as a small distribution facility in Ontario, CA.

“Manufacturing was dwindling in our community. Small manufacturers closed their doors, and that causes the labor pool to dwindle (locally). They follow the jobs to down south. It was taking six months to a year to find skilled workers.”

“Fewer people are dedicating their careers to manufacturing while employment gains are sluggish,” Toffee Coleman, education marketing manager at Everett, WA-based Fluke, said. Fluke creates education modules for workers.

“The older generation of workers, who know how to build mechanical systems from scratch, are exiting the manufacturing workforce and are being replaced by millennials with generalist skills. Relaying industrial knowledge from the graying workforce about machinery is a challenge.”

Advancing technology helps

Increasingly, smart manufacturing can help solve the skills gap, Michelle Drew Rodriguez, Deloitte manufacturing leader, said.

Big Data analytics, improved sensors and related communication, improved robotic technology and better automation are enabling predictive maintenance and eliminating routine tasks, freeing workers to focus on bigger challenges.

“The workforce that used to have to do a lot of hard manual labor are helping solve bigger problems,” she said. “They’re helping ID acute pain points. They know the process the best. It unlocks opportunities and helps create jobs that are more rewarding and exciting for them.”

This could lessen the need for some of the additional workers projected and also help reduce turnover, Rodriguez said. “Employees have a higher retention rate when feeling challenged, satisfied and engaged,” she said.

Training investment low

Advancing technology also poses challenges.

As manufacturing becomes smarter and adds disruptive technology, it’s critical to make sure workers know how to use the emerging technology, such as improved sensors, the connected factory, advanced robotics and additive manufacturing.

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"Technology is accelerating at a pace faster than the pace of people development," said Jeannine Kunz, vice president of Tooling U-SME. "Most organizations are nowhere near being able to capitalize on technology for their business and figure out what it means to their employees. Manufacturers are buying new equipment, bells and whistles but you still have to make sure you’re looking at the worker."

“Technology is accelerating at a pace faster than the pace of people development,” Kunz said. “Most organizations are nowhere near being able to capitalize on technology for their business and figure out what it means to their employees.

“Manufacturers are buying new equipment, bells and whistles but you still have to make sure you’re looking at the worker,” she said. “In programming, setting up, operating and maintaining smart manufacturing tools and processes, you have to see what additional aspects they need training on. Unfortunately, manufacturing has been below average in investing in training on a per-employee basis.”

For example, a factory may add additive manufacturing but only a small number of workers may actually understand the new technology, Kunz said.

Employees working in maintenance, engineering, quality and inspection, programming and design aren’t equipped to understand the issues 3D printing brings to the table, she added.

“While you can have a 3D printing operation incorporated and started up within your factory, the challenge is that you have only a small number of people who get it,” Kunz said. “You don’t have the people to operate and maintain it. People need to learn more about safety. Engineering requires new skills to understand 3D printing. Maintenance requires new skills. Quality and inspection, programming and design all require new skills.”

Companies that invest in training new employees and/or retraining existing employees will be better served over time, said Bob Graff, senior sales manager for Miamisburg, OH-based Yaskawa America, Motoman robotics division. “Smart technology is an integral part of advanced manufacturing, automation and robotics. The benefits of retraining will assist companies who are looking to provide robotic expertise and building cost-effective processes.”

Many companies using robots have a critical need for robotics and automation technicians, he said. This need will increase over the next 10–20 years as robotics-centric industries grow and replace their skilled robotics workforce, he said.

To help address that need, manufacturers should offer ongoing robotics training to new and seasoned robotics technicians, as well as to robot coordinators, Graff said.

“Ongoing training models will need to be centered around new automation and robotic technologies that are emerging, such as virtualization, advanced programming, advanced vision, collaborative robotics simulation and cloud-based augmented reality applications.”

Bigger companies are generally better positioned to address the issue.

“The larger the company, the more likely they are to be able to handle the changes,” she said. “They have the depth and breadth of resources. They tend to have people who are out at events, at conferences. They have larger HR training offices, support staff to look at manufacturing operations.”

Smaller manufacturers need to “ride the wave with them,” Kunz said. “Often, smaller companies have far less resources than their larger counterparts, so attracting, hiring, and retaining skilled tech workers can be a major challenge.”

Recruiting can be from within

Changing perceptions is important. One-third of Americans would not encourage their children to pursue a career in manufacturing, research by Deloitte shows. Both informal and formal efforts can help spread the message that manufacturing is a financially savvy career choice—and no longer dark, dirty or dangerous.

“One perception study found that individuals familiar with manufacturing, by working in the industry or having a close family member working in the industry, are more than twice as likely to encourage their child or relative to pursue a career in manufacturing, Rodriguez said. “Manufacturers need to really encourage their workforce from the shop floor to the board room to get the word out.”

Since 2012, the National Association of Manufacturers and other industry groups have sponsored Manufacturing Day in October encouraging makers to open their doors to the public—to show what manufacturing is and encourage more interest in industry jobs.

Looking ahead, Flores hopes First Lego League helps generate interest in manufacturing and creates a talent pipeline for Rockwell Automation.

“We really hope to see an increase in interest in manufacturing in general, and we hope that we can better track our students coming through the program through our internships and taking on full-time roles,” he said.

Conductix invites students to tour its facilities and also sends representatives to visit schools to talk with students.

“We have handouts that show kids and parents career paths in advanced manufacturing,” Jones said. “We beat the drum, ‘You can make a good living with a two-year degree. You can make more money than some people coming out of school with a four-year degree.’ We use a lot of different avenues for recruiting and keeping the pipeline full. We need all of those opportunities to keep our name out there.”

Apprenticeships helping

Apprenticeships, which date back to the Middle Ages, are evolving to meet today’s needs.

In the past, apprenticeships were time-bound, lacked industrywide standards and were linked more to individual firms, according to Kunz and Tooling U-SME research.

Today’s apprenticeships are competency-based, aligned with Department of Labor regulations, allow for technology-based and distance learning and exist in a framework that allows for customization to meet specific business needs.

Smaller companies are partnering with bigger companies to create local, skills-based apprenticeship programs. Instead of going into five- and six-figure debt in college, apprentices earn money as they learn.

At the end of 2015, there were nearly 448,000 Registered Apprentices in the US, and the federal government announced plans to double the number by 2019.

Apprenticeships are helping young adults discover what they love to do. “If you give a kid a wrench and that’s his or her thing, he or she is going to blow your mind with what they can do because they’ve found the one thing they’re really passionate about,” Jones said

“Private companies should take advantage of the opportunities available to them so they can gain access this sector of the workforce,” Kunz said. “A key step is to create partnerships. Building collaborations with other industry stakeholders–i.e., educators, industry associations, as well as government and workforce agencies—is the best way for moderate-sized companies to develop training programs specifically designed to prepare their local base of the workforce.

“We see a significant increase in the number of companies looking to incorporate apprenticeships in their entire workforce development strategy,” she said. “A lot of what is happening with apprenticeships is taking the strengths of programs of yesteryear and incorporating them with new thinking related to developing people.”

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Vincent Lombardy, right, training and employee development manager at VTL Precision in South Carolina, shows apprentice Ty’Celia Young the teach pendant controls for a new robot inside a new automated cell at the factory.

Companies and regions are creating programs that work and grow.

In 2014, VTL Precision was among five Charleston, SC-area businesses that partnered with Trident Technical College to create an apprenticeship program.

“In conversations at our Manufacturing Council meetings, there was definitely a little frustration,” Vincent Lombardy, training and employee development manager at VTL Precision Inc., said. “The Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C. area has been heavy in manufacturing for years now. They’ve put in the infrastructure, built out the training programs at local tech schools and community college to support manufacturing. They’re probably ahead of a lot of areas in the state and nation. Historically, Charleston was not a manufacturing center town. Companies weren’t seeing the caliber of employees they needed to fill these roles.

“Charleston is somewhat of a budding manufacturing city. Historically, we haven’t been a manufacturing hub of the Southeast. Now that companies are moving into the area, we don’t have employees located here who can necessarily fill those roles.”

VTL executives decided they needed to “take on the development and training of skills to get our employees where they needed to be,” he said. VTL created Lombardy’s position early last year.

The first year, 11 apprentices were accepted. Last year, more than 100 apprentices were accepted into the program, he said.

Collaboration important

Working with, instead of competing against, other local manufacturers is critical.

In Charleston, all the companies involved—smaller ones, such as VTL, and larger employers—offered the same apprenticeship wage in the program, Lombardy said. “One good discussion point: You have smaller companies and larger companies. What if larger companies were able to come in and offer a higher wage to high school students? They could steal away the best talent.”

For example, all of the maintenance apprentices start at $10 an hour the first year and can go to $11 an hour their second year, he said.

When they finish the program, these apprentice graduates could earn $30,000 to $45,000 a year.

Many of the apprentices start while in high school and work 10–15 hours a week, Lombardy said. “They do a signing day kind of like high school athletes signing to go to a college team. They hold a big press conference for the apprentices with coaches, signing on the dotted line and a banquet. The press shows up.”

After graduating from high schools in and around Charleston, most apprentices enter a two-year program at Trident Tech and continue to work.

But each apprentice is different. One apprentice at VTL has already graduated from high school and is working 40 hours a week. Others plan to eventually go to a four-year university, he said.

“It’s a tremendous undertaking for a high school student to take on,” Lombardy said. “The exposure they get on the job and in school sets them on a direct path to a manufacturing position. For us, we’re hiring on talented young individuals. We’re teaching them a skill. They’re coming in fresh—with no bad habits. We get to influence how they learn, what they learn and ensure they’re learning these skills properly, which creates a better employee overall. We’re building a more robust system to deal with the perceived skills gap.”

Now, representatives from other regions are looking at the Charleston, SC, program as a model.

Companies get creative

Some companies offer scholarships to potential workers in exchange for agreeing to remain at the company for a set number of years.

“About five years ago, we decided to pay for a scholarship for a high school senior to go to a two-year technical program,” Conductix’s Jones said. “We pay for books, tuition and tools—tools can be quite expensive. We would give them a job right out of the program and they would give us three years back. We have two on staff now that did that program.”

The company now offers two such scholarships per year.

Entry-level assembly workers can apply for a program where Conductix pays up to $5000 a year for schooling.

Conductix also offers a formal machining apprenticeship program for its existing assembly workers. For machinists, pay starts at $19+/hour compared with $14 an hour for starting assembly workers, she said. Conductix first test drove the idea with an informal apprenticeship and then formalized it through the US Department of Labor’s apprenticeship program.

“Instead of continuing to recruit and trying to find them, we find our own people who want to make more money, who want to learn,” Jones said. “We take the knowledge they have already received and formalize it. The journeyman’s certificate validates what they can do.”

The program focuses on employees who have shown they are loyal, she said.

“They’re not a flight risk,” she said. “They’re established. They’ve been very committed. We wanted to make sure we chose those who are well-deserving of the opportunity. We promote from within. It’s a great way to show your longevity employees you value them and you value their hard work. We talk a lot about how we want our people to grow and learn and flourish. We want to show we mean what we say. With some of the recent hires, we have some really good candidates for machining in the future.”

The technology is important, but the people using it will lead the way.

“The world class leaders in smart manufacturing have cracked the code,” Kunz said. “They’ve figured out people are their secret weapon. Anyone can buy the technology. It’s the people who make the difference.”

Employers require ‘skin in the game’

Tooling U-SME and Fluke are among those who have developed classes, modules and other programs to train new hires and current workers, especially young adults

For example, Fluke’s modules are designed to work well with technology that millennials already are fluent in using, Fluke’s Coleman said.

“Most millennials grew up or were teenagers with a smartphone or tablet in their hands,” she said. “New technology from Fluke Accelix gives them the same flexibility and allows them to conduct their work with the same technology, including cloud-based apps, data analysis and computerized maintenance management software.”

But while some manufacturers are moving ahead with education and training, as a whole the manufacturing sector is not spending nearly as much on direct employee learning compared with spending in other sectors, according to the Association for Talent Development’s 2017 “state of the industry” report. For example, management consulting firms spent on average $1967 per employee on direct learning compared with $462 per employee in manufacturing. Over all sectors, spending on direct learning per employee is rising: $1273 in 2016, up from $1252 in 2015 and $1229 in 2014.

In addition to investment from manufacturing, employees also need to be willing to invest in themselves.

At Conductix, in addition to on-the-job training, workers take courses through Tooling U-SME in core competencies, such as math, as well as in soft skills, such as teamwork, accountability and personal responsibility, Jones said. Workers take Tooling U-SME classes and any technical school on their own time.

“We’re paying for the classes,” she said. “We require them to do them on their own time. That’s their skin in the game. We’re committed. We want them to be committed.”

Editor in Chief Brett Brune contributed to this report.

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