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Can Manufacturers Bridge the Skills Gap?

By SME Media Staff

This article is based on the Workforce Leadership Exchange held at FABTECH 2019 in Chicago. It is the continuation of coverage that began with the Up Front column in Manufacturing Engineering, January 2020.

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Kord Kozma

The moderator of the Leadership Exchange was Kord Kozma, global director of HR, Nidec Press & Automation. The panelists were Hernán Luis y Prado, founder and CEO, Workshops for Warriors, which trains veterans for manufacturing jobs; Dean Steadman, CNC education program manager, FANUC America; and Rob Tessier, national director of advanced fabrication technologies, Airgas.

Kozma: I often go to recruiting fairs at colleges looking not only for post-production workers, but for engineers. What I find is that students are not lining up to talk to manufacturers. They are more interested in industries like software. We need to drive the messaging that manufacturing is cool and high-tech. It’s on us to bring this message to schools. The problem is that high schools in many states get funded based on how many students go to college, not how many get jobs, so the system pushes schools to make choices against us. So for the panelists, when you look at the modern workforce, how do employers’ expectations of candidates need to change? Where is the gap, and what should an employer realistically expect from people coming in to the workforce?

Steadman: Customers have told us they expect new employees to come in with a reasonable knowledge of the type of equipment they will be using, in addition to soft skills like communication and attitude. Employers need to do more to engage with colleges and high schools to attract people. A lot of schools have advisory boards, so employers should get on those boards so they can add value to decision-making regarding curriculum and the equipment they will teach on.

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Rob Tessier

Tessier: What we have to do is open our minds. Stop judging people by their physical attributes. Stop looking at the fact that they might have orange hair. Don’t be afraid to speak to a woman. Don’t be afraid if somebody has a different thought process, or comes from a different place than you. That’s different than the way it was 40 years ago, when everything was regimented. Back then you had to fit into a mold. Today, we should look for the right attitude, and for anyone who wants a career. We need to help people have a career; we have to stop thinking that it can’t be a woman, or it can’t be this young guy, or it can’t be that person who comes from a different place. We need to engage everyone, because everyone has something to offer.

Luis y Prado: I couldn’t agree more. You not only need to engage; you also need to evolve your thought processes. The idea Dean was referring to is what we call the 40-20-10 rule. Most U.S. companies want an employee who has 40 years’ worth of experience but they want them to be about 20 years old so they can stay with the company for a long time and they want to start them off at 10 bucks an hour. That’s just not going to work. Instead, we have to build a nationally reliable training pipeline. And I would argue that the best leadership academy in the world is the U.S. Marine Corps. If you get people that leave the Marine Corps with an honorable discharge, they have led other people and are competent. And if you put them through some of these training programs, you get an employee that will not only amaze you, but will become part of your leadership team in a couple of years.

Kozma: Let’s talk about solutions to close the skills gap. First, let’s discuss external resources. Hernan’s program would be an example of that. Then let’s look at internal initiatives that employers can use to build internal programs.

Tessier: When I was coming up in the business, and obviously I’m one of the silver hair guys, there were a lot of tech schools. And when you went through school, there were a lot of opportunities to learn trades and use your hands. I entered the military, and they took those skills and advanced them tremendously. Today, a lot of trade programs are underfunded, and I’m amazed that some high schools can even produce any type of program. This is an area where vendors and OEMs can help. Every one of you manufactures something. Who knows more about what you manufacture than you? Vendors, and I’m one of them, all have a product we’re selling. We know our product; we know our process. We need to find people that have good attitudes and then start using our vendors, start using outside resources to help educate the workforce.

Steadman: I was fortunate to serve a five-year apprenticeship back in the U.K. in the ‘90s. The company paid for the tuition. The company sent me to college and paid for it. In the meantime, the other four days a week, I was back in the factory. That gave them the opportunity to mold the employee. You went through every department in the company, learning every type of hard skill. Then, towards the end of the apprenticeship, people started to realize the things they preferred to do and gravitated towards them. This kind of apprenticeship approach is coming back. There is a nationally recognized U.S. apprenticeship program funded by the federal government. Companies are starting to get back into apprenticeships and pay for apprentices’ tuition.

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Dean Steadman

Outside of that, we engage with a lot of schools already. One of the schools we work with was producing students who were trying to find jobs [at major OEMs] and were getting turned down. So educators from that school toured the factory [of one of these OEMs] and met with management. They asked them, “why don’t you employ the students we’re producing?” And the managers said, “well, you’re teaching them nothing of value to us.” [However, this OEM decided to] fully engage; they invested a lot of money in their local education system to develop schools and programs. So, I think educators and manufacturers really have to come together. The employers need the students, and the educators must produce qualified students to go into those manufacturing jobs.

Luis Y Prado: One challenge is that we don’t recognize where we are in history. As Dean was saying, the U.K. pays for apprenticeship programs. European and Asian countries have paid programs where people leave high school and go into 10,000-hour apprenticeship programs that give them a family-supporting salary. They have a clear career trajectory. [These countries’ programs] subsidize apprentices’ housing, travel, food, and vacations. We do not do that in the U.S. And the nation that does not maintain itself at the peak of manufacturing prowess is the nation that will be genuflecting to other nations. Let’s have America reclaim her title as the world’s manufacturing superpower by us as Americans getting together and recognizing that this hasn’t worked. The community college system is an interesting one, but is there one person in the audience that has found one apprenticeship program that has given them all the employees that they need? So, we’re looking for a nationally viable training program with apprenticeship programs. No one does that in the U.S. right now.

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Hernán Luis y Prado

We need people who are hardworking, communicative, show up on time, and are drug free. Then we need to train them. America needs trained and certified welders, machinists, fabricators, and machinery repair technicians. That’s what we do at Workshops for Warriors. But it’s only possible because we get support from companies that are thinking ahead. Companies like FANUC Automation, which donates enough robots [to our program] so that an entire class of veterans get as much touch time as they would on a tank or on a helicopter; they leave [our program] proficient on using robots. Haas Automation [provides machines] so people leave proficient at using CNC mills and CNC lathes. If you want to train tomorrow’s workforce, you need to give students access to instructors who are familiar with tomorrow’s technology. And students need to have enough money in their pockets so they can focus on schooling and not on survival. That’s a challenge all of us as Americans need to take on for the good of our nation.

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