Fortune has truly smiled on me. Through my years as an editor, I have been exposed to the collective wisdom and business savvy of industry leaders at every turn through personal relationships and by attending numerous conferences and trade shows. The lessons and experiences recounted by these leaders were many and varied. And yet, from an operational standpoint, there was always one common gripe that seemed to pervade each metalworking sector I have ever covered – the shortage of skilled and reliable workers.
During my professional career, I witnessed the decline of manufacturing’s importance in this country and have seen the gradual shifting of educational programs away from vocational pursuits toward our increasingly information-based and service-oriented economy. Sad as these changes may have been, they corresponded to a myriad of plant closings and job losses across all types of manufacturing industries during the past few decades. This happened as the world shifted its focus toward Asia and part of the Pacific Rim as its manufacturers of choice.
Nonetheless, manufacturing in the U.S. and North America is still a huge industry. The cultural de-emphasis in manufacturing as a viable and lucrative career choice, however, dissuaded many from entering it and created a need for qualified workers. This, coupled with the fact that many skilled manufacturing personnel are Baby Boomers and soon to retire in large numbers, means we are entering a time of real personnel shortages if manufacturing is to ever rebound in a big way.
The effect of personnel shortages has been somewhat ameliorated by the advent of microelectronics and related technologies, which have actually increased the productivity of labor at a time when manufacturing’s share of Gross Domestic Product was dropping. Although this is generally a good thing, the trend meant that some jobs lost to overseas manufacturers were not coming back because remaining manufacturers got better and more competitive at what they were doing. And so did overseas competition, for that matter.
Fortunately, the industries most affected by these job losses have not turned a blind eye to the pursuit of educational opportunities and programs that might sustain their ranks into the indefinite future. The metalworking sectors have formed alliances with many colleges and universities to sponsor professorships, department chairs, labs and internships toward the development of programs that would swell the ranks of future qualified employees.
In my 10 years as member of Kent State University’s College of Technology Industrial Advisory Board, I was lucky to have a part in that school’s considerable efforts to educate and graduate students needed in the manufacturing workplace. From behind the scenes, I was able to witness how seriously administrators and faculty accepted their challenge to provide graduates with the skills employers actually needed.
The good news is that there are many schools trying to do the same thing. And the timing for these efforts couldn’t be better, as was echoed in a report I recently read from Dr. Rassoul Dastmodz, president of St. Paul College, a two-year technical and community college in Minnesota. Dr. Dastmodz said, “The demand for skilled workers in some industry sectors is increasing at a pace far greater than our existing community and technical colleges can produce. When we talk to the employers in the Twin Cities, we clearly sense their anxiety about a skilled worker shortage.”
My point is that industry and academia should continue, or even extend, their partnerships with each other to provide opportunities to job seekers, students and personnel for a reviving manufacturing base.