Addressing Manufacturing Workforce Challenges: Our Future In Peril


By Dan Berry, President and CEO, MAGNET

Few conversations we here at MAGNET have with manufacturers about their operating challenges get very far without workforce considerations emerging as a central problem.  Unfortunately, we have learned that there are multiple dimensions to these challenges and that no single solution will fix them.

At one level, primarily among those companies looking for moderately skilled entry level workers, we often hear these sentiments.  “We’ll train them.  Just give us individuals who have basic reading, writing and math skills, who understand what it means to work, that show up every day on time, can follow directions, work as a member of a team and can pass a drug test. ”

Here is another refrain we often hear:  “The average age in my skilled workforce is 55 plus.  I am going to lose all my (insert machinists, welders, etc.) over the next several years and there is no source of replacements in sight.”

Other companies talk about the difficulty they’re having with finding highly skilled talent, often in various engineering disciplines.

So, the range of workforce challenges runs the gamut of education in the U.S. from what’s necessary in K-12 education to build the foundation for the workforce to the technical and community colleges, which develop the knowledge and applied skills, on up to what happens in our four year colleges to develop the highly educated professional.  One clear need across the educational spectrum is for more focus on the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and math.

In Cleveland, MAGNET has joined with several community partners to focus more attention on STEM in a variety of ways. In addition, we have tackled the varied workforce challenges by addressing two related factors—quantity and quality.

Our work on quantity is aimed at building a pipeline of prospective workers interested in manufacturing careers.  Much of this has been through our Ambassador Program which involves marketing, media and educational programming with K-12 students, their parents and teachers to increase awareness about the great careers available in manufacturing.  In addition, we have worked with particular population groups, such as returning veterans, to interest them in, prepare them for, and connect them with, manufacturing career opportunities.

With regard to quality, one of major initiatives has been to work extensively with the National Association of Manufacturers’ (NAM) Manufacturing Institute on advancing a skill standards continuum from primary and secondary education to higher education.  The objective is to promote the use of an industry-based skills certification system that relies on competencies and standards that establish a common language to guide training, education and hiring.  We’re also involved with advancing several other projects, including the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative (AMTEC) and the Steel-Worker for the Future, which are based on the skills-standards approach.

Our experience thus far is surfacing some principles that we think are useful in responding to workforce issues regardless of where they are on the spectrum of challenges.

  • Engage employers directly in the problem definition and design of solutions
  • Build a commonly shared definition of the skills required that can be used to drive design of curricula and training programs.
  • Tie the formal training and education to various types of what is called “experiential learning”.  This means finding ways to connect the classroom learning with hands on work experience.  Internships, co-op education and apprenticeships are examples of this approach.

Unless we figure out how to address the various types of workforce challenges, the future of our manufacturing base is in peril.

We would love to hear from readers on which, if any, of these perspectives and principles reflect their company’s experience in addressing workforce challenges.  Are there other issues that we should be addressing?   We also would welcome your suggestions about best practice programs or strategies that we should be trying to emulate. Please comment below or drop me a note at dan.berry@magnetwork.org with your comments and ideas.

The Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network (MAGNET) exists solely to help manufacturing companies in Northern Ohio become more competitive and grow. MAGNET is an Ohio Edison Technology Center, a contractor with the NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership program administered through the Ohio Department of Development, and a part of the regional economic development system in Northeast Ohio.

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