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Search for Skilled Labor Knows No Borders

Alan Rooks
By Alan Rooks Editor in Chief, Manufacturing Engineering

Sometimes, it helps to know that other people have the same problems you do. I guess that’s what accounts for all the support groups out there that help people cope.

For example, we in the U.S. manufacturing industry continually struggle with the skills gap, lack of available workers, image problems, or whatever else you want to call it. We do great work in battling this problem, as documented in the pages of Manufacturing Engineering and other publications, but it’s hard to make progress in this fight.

I’ve been under the impression that this is a particularly American problem. Unlike other industrial countries, our labor system has long operated on the principle that in downturns, lots of people lose their jobs. Companies are, for the most part, free to discharge employees at will, and they do so in times of economic trouble.

In the Great Recession, U.S. manufacturing took it on the chin: 1.4 million net manufacturing jobs were lost between 2007 and 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of those people did not return to manufacturing when the recovery began, and who can blame them?

Contrast that with Germany, where instead of laying people off and paying them unemployment, companies reduced work hours and sent workers for retraining in the available time, with financial support from the German government. When the recovery started, those workers were not only available, but had enhanced skills.

But other industrial countries apparently struggle like we do here in the U.S. to find skilled workers. For example, in a New York Times article, “18,000 Jobs, and Plenty of Snubs,” by Liz Alderman, she noted that plastics manufacturers in eastern France are having trouble finding enough workers for production lines that require more advanced skills. Despite an unemployment rate of 8 percent, 250,000 jobs are unfilled in France and 40 percent of manufacturing companies report a shortage of skilled workers.

The problem is complex, with labor unions blaming low wages, others the lack of modernization, and still others the fact that only 1/3 of French students pursue vocational training or apprenticeships, according to the article. The country’s economy’s minister has launched a “French Fab” tour, showcasing factories as clean and high tech. Does this sound familiar?

Knowing that other countries struggle with manufacturing labor shortages helps put our issue in perspective, and maybe we should compare notes with those countries. It also shows that we should double down on the battle to narrow the skills gap here in the U.S. It looks more and more like it will be a perennial challenge.
Editor’s note: Bruce Morey has joined the Manufacturing Engineering editorial staff as Senior Technical Editor. He has written for ME for many years, has an extensive background as an engineer, and is a welcome addition to our editorial team.

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