America's Most Wanted: Skilled Workers

A highly skilled workforce is necessary to meet 21st century manufacturing needs.

By Gerald Shankel, President/CEO, Fabricators & Manufacturers Assn. International

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Technology is expanding exponentially throughout industry — from design and production to inventory management, delivery and service. Manufacturing positions today include exciting work with lasers and robotics. The introduction of CNC machine tools has changed the nature of the work of machinists. Now, a machinist has to be computer literate and understand basic electronics and physics.

According to Laura Narvaiz, vice president of communications for the National Association of Manufacturers, "A lot of jobs require at least an associate degree or manufacturing certificate. Workers have to know how to program computers, fix computers and work with robotics."

In addition to manufacturing demand, demographic factors contribute to the looming employment crisis. The average age of a worker in today's skilled workforce is 56 years old. The baby boomer generation of skilled workers will retire within the next 5 to 15 years, creating the need for an estimated 10 million new workers by 2020.

Alan Burton, vice president for human resources at Maine-headquartered construction company Cianbro Corp., which employs millwrights, pipefitters, iron workers and electricians, says, "Generally, large manufacturers have a long-term workforce, but it's an aging workforce. A large number of people are getting close to retirement and there aren't enough new skilled workers to replace them."

Increasing Interest in Manufacturing
Manufacturers, trade groups, educators and media must work to respond to this challenge. Industry associations are one group stepping up to the plate. In March, for example, NBT partnered with the National Assn. for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) to launch a national pilot program of summer manufacturing camps that builds on NBT's successful camp blueprint.

In 2010, 16 NACCE member community colleges throughout the U.S. hosted NBT summer manufacturing camps targeting youth at the critical level of junior high and high school, exposing them to math, science, and engineering principles, and industry technology, as well as basic entrepreneurship.

Camp participants use technology to create a product from start to finish, providing them practical manufacturing experience in 3D design, CNC programming, welding, machining and more, while learning product creation, problem solving, entrepreneurship and team building.

Visits to area manufacturers provide an up-close look at products being made as well as career advice and inspiration from the entrepreneurs who run the companies. In addition to manufacturing technologies, camp participants also learn entrepreneurship principles such as how products launch businesses and how small businesses are run.

NBT also issues scholarships to students at colleges and trade schools pursuing careers in manufacturing. In 2010, approximately 20 scholarships were awarded to students across the country.

Other organizations are working on improving the image of manufacturing as well.  For example, the Weld-Ed National Center for Welding Education and Training offers summer camps, specifically for girls, focused on welding skills. And NAM is working to attract young people to manufacturing through its "Dream It. Do It" campaign. Programs like these could not exist without a need.

Business and Educators Must Partner
Reaching educators is key to improving the future skilled workforce. Education priorities today rarely position manufacturing as a preferred career choice, and high school counselors and principals often fail to realize that manufacturing is a viable option for students. Thus, today's youth just aren't aware of the skills needed in an advanced manufacturing environment and the careers available.

Partnerships between local manufacturers and educational institutions will encourage more people to enter the field and to employ more skilled workers in plants and factories. Manufacturers should consider offering field trips for local elementary and middle school classes, as well as Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. Ideally, a young, energetic worker will lead a brief tour of the plant. When students see a clean, modern facility full of sophisticated machinery, it will fascinate them and leave a lasting impression. If more companies partner with schools and youth organizations and arrange factory visits, the word definitely will spread.

Employers should foster ties with education officials in local communities and be willing to invest in people. Manufacturing equipment suppliers should consider donating equipment to local trade or vocational schools to support manufacturing courses. Manufacturers also should advise instructors and counselors at community colleges or high schools on job opportunities available and in curriculum planning.

"Manufacturers should reach out and be more active in their communities," said Chris Kuehl, economic analyst for the Fabricators & Manufacturers Assn. International (FMA). "Manufacturers aren't terribly active in Chambers of Commerce or professional associations or with their local universities and colleges."

One of the most innovative programs in recent memory designed to give young people a view of manufacturing opportunities is called Max & Ben's Manufacturing Adventures. It's a web site where two 13-year old boys present their tours of local manufacturing facilities in video format. Funded through a community-based job training grant from the Department of Labor, the program was conceived and executed by Western Technical College in LaCrosse, Wis.

Workforce Development Programs
States, schools and businesses should consider addressing the shortfall in skilled workers directly through vocational training and workforce development programs. One such initiative was recently launched in California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled the "I Built It-Youth" campaign, a statewide effort to begin training California's future skilled workforce to help rebuild California's infrastructure.

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