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Walking the Talk on Workforce Development

Alan Rooks
By Alan Rooks Editor in Chief, Manufacturing Engineering

When we talk about the skills gap, it sounds like one monolithic issue. In reality, it’s thousands of individual issues; every U.S. manufacturing company, each with unique needs and issues, must solve the riddle of attracting and retaining new talent. Each solution is also unique, defined by local resources such as technical schools, training programs, and manufacturers’ own training resources.

A lively Leadership Exchange at FABTECH 2019 hashed out these issues, offering opinions, ideas and practical solutions. Moderator Kord Kozma, global director of HR for Nidec Press & Automation, laid down a challenge: “We need to make a call of action to [manufacturers] because you are the only ones who can fix it. The government is not going to fix it for you, schools aren’t going to fix it for you. It’s up to you to change what you’ve been doing. You need to think differently. You need to act differently, invest differently, and lead differently.”

There are several critical issues that manufacturers, compared to other employers, must overcome. According to a 2013 U.S. Department of Labor study, the median age of America’s advanced manufacturing employee is 59. “So in six years, what do we do to rebuild our workforce?” said Hernán Luis y Prado, founder and CEO of training organization Workshops for Warriors. “The other troubling statistic is 3.5 million manufacturing jobs are going unfilled due to lack of skilled labor, and that number will rise to almost 5 million in the next 15 years. The silver tsunami is coming, where 80 percent of the workforce will be leaving in the next five to eight years.”

Another issue is that most people don’t know how modern manufacturing works. “We’re not opening up our doors, and we’re not recruiting people properly,” said Rob Tessier, national director of advanced fabrication technologies for Airgas, a supplier of industrial and other gases. “We [should] take in high school students and college students for summer jobs. But don’t put them in the shop to sweep the floor. Put them in positions where they realize how things work. And listen to what they have to say; let them learn what you’re doing. Give them a taste of how much fun this really is.”

Dean Steadman, CNC education program manager for FANUC America, a supplier of robots, CNC systems and factory automation, noted the stigma attached to manufacturing. “In the last 15-20 years, a lot of high school manufacturing programs were dismantled. Younger people [were not being invited] into manufacturing careers. We (manufacturers) have not been very good at marketing ourselves and [our jobs].” And schools that did keep manufacturing programs have out-of-date technology. “They’re still teaching manufacturing skills for things that we did 20-30 years ago. The challenge is to make sure we put this high-tech equipment into the schools.”

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