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Human and Not-So-Human Skills Gap Fixes

Alan Rooks
By Alan Rooks Editor in Chief, Manufacturing Engineering

With U.S. unemployment spiking in 2020 due to a recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps people sought out some of the many manufacturing jobs available? Nope. If anything, the skills gap got worse.

In a May article on CNN Business, “American Factories are Desperate for Workers,” Matt Egan laid out the problem: “Demand for goods is skyrocketing as the U.S. economy reopens from the pandemic. But there’s a big problem: American factories can’t find enough people to do the work.

“Even though U.S. manufacturing activity surged to a 37-year high in March, the industry has more than half a million job openings. Factories are struggling to find skilled workers for specialized roles such as welders and machinists. Manufacturers are even having trouble hiring entry-level positions that do not require expertise.”

As many as 2.1 million manufacturing jobs will be unfilled through 2030, according to a May study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute. The report warned the worker shortage will hurt revenue and production and could ultimately cost the U.S. economy up to $1 trillion by 2030. “It is deeply concerning that at a time when jobs are in such high demand nationwide, the number of vacant entry-level manufacturing positions continues to grow,” Paul Wellener, vice chairman and U.S. industrial products and construction leader at Deloitte, said in a statement.

Manufacturers surveyed in the Deloitte report said it is 36 percent harder to find talent today than in 2018, even though the unemployment rate is higher today, and 77 percent said they expect to have trouble attracting and retaining workers this year and beyond.

As I’ve said before in this space, the solution to the skills gap is not one big thing. It will take lots of initiatives by many different people and entities to turn this ship around. I’m proud to report that SME, the publisher of this magazine, is part of one such initiative. Thanks to the Michigan Legislature, manufacturing education in the state is getting a big boost. The SME Education Foundation will receive $6 million as part of the School Aid Fund Budget (PA 48 of 2021), which passed with bipartisan support in the Michigan Legislature. The award will double the number of schools participating in the SME PRIME initiative, which offers education and career-readiness opportunities to high school students in the U.S. Read more about it.

Still, it’s likely we will need more than human help to solve the skills gap. The Deloitte report said there are 2.7 million industrial robots used worldwide and that number is growing. For example, plants are using autonomous mobile robots to extend the staff they have and increase productivity. In an SME Media podcast, Jeff Huerta of Vecna Robotics explains how to use this equipment to cope with high staff turnover. Listen to the podcast.

So, in other words, we’ll get by with a little help from our friends—human or otherwise.

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