Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Manufacturing’s Future Workforce: Why Bridging the Skills Gap Isn’t So Simple

In our last article, Where Have All the Technicians Gone?, we shared that, to this point, the conversation concerning the skills gap in manufacturing has been largely focused on the origins of the issue, rather than on solutions. This month, we’re taking a deeper look at the skills gap problem, as well as a couple of innovative ideas for addressing workforce challenges.
The importance of innovating manufacturing’s future workforce is most recently and pointedly evidenced by an October 15th Reuter’s article. The business and financial news service organization reported that four of the largest U.S. manufacturers had unveiled plans for a new group committed to training military veterans to work in the manufacturing sector. The Get Skills to Work Coalition will initially train 15,000 veterans, and the four funding companies (General Electric, Alcoa, Boeing and Lockheed-Martin) are inviting other manufacturers to join the effort.
linear puzzle - 4 people with one disconnected from the others
To us, the symbiotic foundation of the Get Skills to Work Coalition program is what makes the effort particularly elegant and innovative – here’s why:
According to the Reuter’s article, while many manufacturing positions require higher levels of literacy and math competency than typical applicants have attained, military personnel generally acquire these skills while serving their country. Clearly, by tapping into the pool of veterans in the U.S., the Get Skills to Work Coalition is able to provide an immediate solution to the skills gap problem in that these potential workers will require less additional training, are “job ready” and will likely bring a strong work ethic to industry.
The quest for high-level skills, however, points to a darker side of the skills gap picture – and supports the perspective that perhaps the skills gap isn’t as severe as many believe it to be.
A new report on the topic co-authored by the Boston Consulting Group and also covered in the same Reuter’s article, cites an example job posting calling for:
A college degree in biology or chemistry,
experience in manufacturing, mixing chemicals,
and handling hazardous materials and, preferably,
knowledge of SAP software.
The compensation for this position is $15 to $17 per hour, which raises the question:
Does the skills gap seem so vast only because workers qualified for these jobs are too smart to accept such a meager hourly wage?
At EFI Group, we’ve seen a related problem.
Robert Breyer is a member of our Controls Team and specializes in instrumentation design, power distribution and installation – highly valued skills in manufacturing. When Breyer begin his engineering career, he quickly noticed that many of the people he worked with had significantly more talent than their current jobs demanded. Yet they couldn’t move up within their companies because they lacked certain skills and certifications. They were also unaware of how or where to get the training they needed (quite a change from decades past when career paths in industry were well mapped out and training opportunities plentiful). To further complicate matters, many of the training programs that did exist were not sufficiently in-depth to help students pass the National Electrician’s Certification Exam.
So, when Breyer discovered his local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was looking for an instructor to teach Fundamental Instrumentation as a pre-cursor to higher level of instruction that, in combination, would enable workers to more easily attain national certification, he jumped at the opportunity and has been teaching an evening course ever since.
Breyer’s union clearly recognizes that today’s manufacturing environment demands workers with specialized skills who are able to keep up with changing technology. Even more, they believe instrumentation and controls is a specialty young people need exposure to and they are willing to invest in providing additional levels of training.
Sounds ideal, right? Well, here’s where the problem arises.
Breyer’s students are apprentices. They currently earn less than journeymen who have their national certification. Once Breyer’s students pass their national certification exam, they’ll earn about $10 more per hour. But don’t congratulate them just yet.
Because there is a surplus of journeymen in Maryland, once Breyer’s students are journeymen themselves, they’re likely to be laid off and replaced by apprentices.
Catch 22.
And proof that simply finding skilled workers or providing training is not the answer – which brings us back to the need for innovative thinking.
The concept of leveraging existing, but untapped talent, as well as a determination to create a value-based, sustainable business model, has been a driving force behind EFI Group since our founding. As a manufacturing engineering consultancy, our success has been significantly supported by our ability to not only bring a wide range of expertise to our manufacturing clients’ efficiency and profitability challenges, but to also offer a deeper knowledge base.
But how do you provide both breadth and serious depth and still remain small enough to be extremely responsive and agile to client needs? Much like the Get Skills to Work Coalition, we’ve managed to avoid our own skills gap thanks to an innovative approach to staffing.
Over many years, we’ve developed relationships with a cadre of ex-military, near-retirement, retired and part-time-by-choice individuals who bring extremely specialized expertise to our team. While not looking for full-time employment, they are passionate about using their skills to solve engineering challenges and we leverage their knowledge on behalf of our clients. As a result, EFI Group has avoided being a generalist – which we believe defeats the purpose of working with a consultancy – and, instead, acts as a specialist over a wider range of industries and competencies. We are also able to add more manufacturing jobs than we could otherwise and, most importantly, contribute to our employee’s quality of life.
It’s a sustainable model that works for us and it’s why we are excited about the Get Skills to Work Coalition program. We’ve seen how ideas like this can work.
In our last skills gap article, we ended by posing three general questions and we are grateful for the response we received from you. This time, we have two slightly more pointed questions – and we’d enjoy hearing your opinion:
Do you think the skills gap is as big of a problem as it’s been made out to be?
What are you doing right now to address your internal skills gap issues?

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