Manufacturing Employment and the Skills Gap
One of the big goals this year is to grow manufacturing jobs in the United States. It is a wonderful goal and I endorse it. There are some challenges with the plan that not too many are talking about. At face value, manufacturing jobs sound great. But manufacturing jobs in 2017 are not the same as manufacturing jobs were in the 50s, 60s or 70s. Because of advanced technologies in our manufacturing plants and the high levels of automation, many of the jobs available today require much greater levels of skills and training than those of past decades.
I attended a board meeting for the Rochester Technology and Manufacturing Association last week. Our main topic of discussion was technical training. There are more than a few initiatives being made by the government at local, state and federal levels as well as private groups to get more people trained for technical careers. The Rochester Engineering Society also has initiatives to help tutor in the public and charter schools, particularly in the technical areas. The Obama administration started a program to help companies fund apprenticeship programs. The need for more technical training is clear. There is a growing lack of trained workers in many industries, especially those that require a basic understanding of science or technology. The evidence of this is that, even as the unemployment rate continues to fall, millions of Americans are still without a job. The fact that so many jobs are yet to be filled is frequently because of the mismatch between job requirements and job skills.
We continue to see gains in the overall US economy. There were nearly 100,000 new jobs in March. But the real bright spot in March was in manufacturing jobs. New jobs in manufacturing totaled 11,000. Over the past four months, the sector has gained 67,000 new jobs. This is a strong turnaround after 25,000 manufacturing jobs were lost between July and November 2016. Some of these jobs can be done with basic job skills. But in today’s world an increasing number of manufacturing jobs require a higher level of technical training than just a high school diploma or GED.
There are several shortfalls we need to try and address as we build our “new” manufacturing economy. We need to find ways to improve and adjust our education system. We know that many public schools are failing. But in addition to supporting public schools, we need to find ways for industry and other private sector leaders to make investments in education and training that fit with employers’ workforce needs. As many of these initiatives as possible should target disadvantaged groups. This can be one way to break the poverty cycle.
Employers need to work with the educators and groups investing in education to define and identify the skills they need to fill the jobs they have. This can help to fill vacancies in entry and mid-level jobs. And we have often advocated for more internships and apprenticeships to help raise the levels of the existing workforce. Unfortunately, employers are providing fewer opportunities for on-the-job training than they have in the past. Yet, they are still looking to hire workers with skills and experience.
Too often today, the responsibility for identifying and getting trained with the correct skills has shifted from the manufacturers or other employers to the potential job seekers. If this is to be overcome, then it is important that we collectively develop an education system with the right opportunities for those who wish to learn skills they can apply immediately to opportunities they find.
Without addressing these challenges, this skills gap limits U.S. economic growth, and holds back a workforce eager earn better wages. We have a technical challenge to overcome, but I know that with drive and good old Yankee ingenuity we will find a way to achieve it.