Reading my way through my IndustryWeek online magazines last week, I noticed two articles that, taken together, sounded funny to me, although I was not amused. The first was a piece entitled “Job Shops Need Marketing, Skilled Workers to Grow” and the second was called “How Much Do U.S. Production Workers Make?”. Thinking both of these articles would describe how the continued resurgence of American manufacturing was creating and filling plenty of good jobs, I read through the first article to find that 78 percent of small manufacturers surveyed by MFG.com said they are optimistic about sales and profits for 2012 even though “one of their greatest challenges is finding skilled employees”. The second article, then, didn’t make sense. It said the median weekly income for U.S. production workers dropped 2.5 percent this year from the same period in 2011.
Could it be that people who would be good candidates for manufacturing training and jobs are not seeing wages commensurate with the jobs (and thus, choose a different type of job)? That small manufacturers are having trouble finding workers because they aren’t willing to pay market wages?
This disconnect was not lost on me. For a decade, manufacturing skills gaps and solutions have been identified by organizations as diverse as the National Association of Manufacturers, the Center for Law and Social Policy, and Georgetown University. Two-year colleges have been ratcheting up their workforce training to accommodate individuals who want to work in advanced manufacturing, and public and private grants have been driving manufacturing skills acquisition in regional collaborations around the country. To what, then, should we attribute this continued “dearth” of skilled workers? “You get what you pay for” is an old aphorism. But it does seem to me that perhaps, generally, many small manufacturers haven’t yet fully adapted to the fact that in order to grow, they need to invest, not simply cut costs. Whether those investments are in technology, continuous improvement, sustainability, supplier relationships or workforce development, understanding how investments pay off is a core function of a successful business. It’s about risk management and investment optimization. It’s about vision. A business will amount to very little without smart people running it. And those smart people should be compensated appropriately.
I can’t say for sure that the continuing skills gap is about wages and not about skills. I’ve seen and conducted enough research demonstrating that, over the last few decades, many of our educated young people have chosen careers outside of manufacturing because they saw it as a declining industry. And as manufacturing jobs changed over that time from brawn-based to brain-based, many current job seekers don’t have the basic STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education needed to work in advanced manufacturing. But the U.S. is bouncing back and advanced manufacturing is pulling the economy forward like a Clydesdale in front of a beer truck. It would be a shame to see it all slide away because we aren’t investing in our workforce to the same extent we invest in other manufacturing strategies.