The skills gap is a misnomer

Friday, February 12, 2016

by Ken McGuire

Upon wrapping up the details on Awarding the Dr. Sherrie Ford Manufacturing as a Desirable Career scholarships for the 2016 Spring Term, I coincidently came across a dramatic article on the skills crisis for manufacturers. The article cited that 3.4 million jobs would be created in manufacturing by 2025, but only 1.4 million skilled workers would be available to fill them. That meant that 2.0 million jobs would be left unfilled. Those are staggering numbers with serious consequences for America's economy.

Those numbers didn't make sense in light of the terrific talents that I had just struggled with to discriminate the minute characteristics of the good student candidates from the great scholarship candidates. So I decided to dig a little deeper into those numbers to try to make sense of them. I found that the numbers were actually correct only if you accepted the premise that no other changes would take place in the manufacturing community of companies.

But blinding changes are taking place at an accelerating pace, especially in manufacturing. Those workforce gap numbers assume a one-for-one need to replace existing workers. Then they extrapolate manpower output ratios accordingly. That might certainly be true for some manufacturers, but definitely not for all.

Technology advances like Additive 3D tools, the IoT (Internet of things), digital manufacturing methods, and virtual reality approaches, are making inroads and having impacts, although not for every company. New, more effective best practices like lean and Six Sigma, cellular manufacturing, pull systems, and advanced analytics (Big Data) are driving increased productivity as well. People-centric attitudes, team engagement, and a whole host of 'respect for people' practices are also demonstrating the productivity opportunity for genuine continuous improvement in manufacturing. So, if we take these factors into consideration, maybe the skills shortage isn't so huge after all?

However, we know that every manufacturing enterprise isn't or won't adopt these opportunities to improve. If a large fraction of companies don't, then we are still left with a pretty big number of skilled workers short of our growing workforce requirement. Knowing that there are 356,000 manufacturers in America (with 5,600 companies over 500 employees), and of the smaller 80% are under twenty (20) employees, I thought I would ask a “typical' manufacturer” what they thought about the skills gap.

I contacted a midsized manufacturer I've known for a long time that I would consider a leader, an industrial device maker, with a workforce of 80-120 employees that operate a machine shop and assembly operations.  I asked, "Are you having a problem with a skills gap”?  The loud clear answer was “POSITIVELY! we can't find machinists, CNC operators, skilled assemblers or quality specialists; and we are refusing new orders because of it."

"Where are you looking?” I asked. "Everywhere and anywhere, job boards, temp agencies, newspaper ads, and I get either no responses or they send unqualified people". "I tell them, just find me someone who can pass a drug test, will show up every day, and do what we tell them to do and they're hired."

When I tell managers and owners about the terrific AME scholarship candidates that I just reviewed, they show interest, but wonder exactly how they would fix or fit with today's problems.  "If they can't produce or run our existing machines on arrival, we don't need them right now, maybe in the future." They say "We've had these types before, they have great ideas, want to work in teams, want to work on projects, want us to buy new equipment, all good stuff, but none of it gets the "iron out the door to our customers this week".

So I asked, "What about the new technologies and advanced methodologies?”  Their answer was "I’ve seen it at trade shows, but it's too expensive for us, and who would run it anyway? And we don't have time to chase new ideas when we can't even keep up with the load we've got!"

There are lots of flaws in those arguments, but it’s a clear insight into the intense pressures being experienced in small and midsized manufacturers with limited resources. A Monday morning quarterback might ask "Why did you wait so long to staff up?" Or, "Didn't you see the upswing coming?" Why isn't this company (and many others like it) an attractive career target for aspiring, up and coming students? So now let’s look to the recent scholarship candidates and winners to see what they think.

AME is encouraging promising students to pursue a career in manufacturing and annually awards scholarships in the name of the late Dr. Sherrie Ford. See the AME link to explore and apply ( I lead the team that reviews the applications and judges the winners and awards the scholarships.

My reading of the background profiles of both the scholarship winners and applicants challenges the notion that manufacturers cannot find skilled and qualified workers to fill the huge gap being created by baby boomer retirements. These new potential entrants into manufacturing, by their choice, are real winners that any company would relish as a recruit, an employee, an associate, or team member. Our AME judges really struggle to determine the winners from the rich pool of deserving candidates who apply.

A reflection back on what characteristics or special talents separated the winners from the rest in the 2015 Fall term gives little insight into a success formula that makes for a winner, but there are certain aspects about the candidates that stand out as decisive factors shaping their career aspirations and winning characteristics.

One factor is that many of the winners had a manufacturing person, or parent, or teacher that influenced them to learn more about making things and to try something a little different from a blind pursuit of a generic college degree. Many of these winners were moved by an in-person visit to a manufacturing facility that inspired their deeper dive into technical studies. Students who Interned, or work-cooped or had a part time job exposure in a manufacturing facility were challenged and redirected their studies in pursuit of a manufacturing career. Another major factor was their school's ability to give them a "hands-on" education through robotics competitions and other tangible class projects involving building something. Whether these factors made them good students or being good students led them to pursue these factors is not certain. But every one of these students achieved high grades in a balanced school curriculum.

The take-away for companies looking to recruit new employees to build a better future with a young workforce in order to replace the wave of older worker reaching retirement, is that there are plenty of qualified students anxious to start a manufacturing career. Companies however, need to seek them out by engaging with their local schools where they reside. But be aware that the full time positions these bright and talented students, sometimes called “millennials”, are seeking to fill are NOT replacing a retiree who spent 20 years on the same machine as an operator.  The best and brightest student applicants want to work in teams where they can learn quickly, they want to perform a variety of different tasks during the year to acquire multiple skills, they want the opportunity to learn many new things as they progress and they want to be recognized for it. And all these new entrants to the workforce all want to be engaged in improving the business in meaningful ways.

So this is the disconnect I see between the thinking of the manufacturer with workforce needs and the entry level scholarship candidates that could bring them the productivity gains to alleviate the skills shortage. Offering them a position for "same-old, same-old jobs" is a turn off. It reinforces the stereotype of "dull, dirty, and dead-end" factory jobs that no ambitious student would want.  

Dear employer/owner: the best and brightest are two generations removed from you; so you need to learn what they are thinking. You need to bring them on as Interns or in Part-time Job Shadow jobs and get to know them, and let them know you. They are much smarter than you think and bring ambitious ideas with more promise than you are currently getting from your retiring workers.

In their studies they learned about Lean and Six Sigma and they know how to apply the principles and tools, just not where to apply them. They see “mindless machine tending to produce batches of parts” as contrary to the lean and JIT processes they learned. They see instead a machine cell producing to takt time, not to quantity standards. They know how to apply Six Sigma to calibrate a computerized new machine for flawless startup, and they envision rearranging other nearby machines in a cell to take advantage of the CNC labor savings by redistributing the work. They expect to see a value stream map so that they can synchronize output to customer demands. They worked in teams in school and expect to work in teams in the factory.

If conventional employers are unwilling to embrace these disruptive new advances in work methodology to attract these new entrants to the manufacturing workforce, then they will seek a young, new, and agile startup manufacturer that may become the disrupter to the "same-old, same-old" conventional manufacturer that is out of date and on a downhill path.

The experience some companies have had is that an infusion of today's youth brings a 30% or more increase in productivity. It is a proven fact that engagement, teaming, technology, lean and other “best practices” make a manufacturer more productive.  Employers need to get to know this new generation of students in order to integrate them to accelerate growth, NOT to have new entrants do more of the “same old, same old”.

Employers and educators need to change their business model some. Not all students come 'shop ready'. The employer perhaps needs to develop on-boarding programs to align this generation to the workplace. Employers need to engage with the schools through adopt-a-school programs to assist the schools to better define and prepare the workforce for today's manufacturer. And high schools with 50%-70% graduation rates maybe should recognize that career ready and college ready are two different things. High schools should offer certifications that carry portable college credit along with diplomas. Many HS's already do. However, we know that very few future jobs can be adequately filled with only a HS diploma. The technical and community colleges need to pick up that void.  Many of these have 'course of study completion rates' in the 50% and lower range. They should recognize that their "curriculums" take too long for today's impatient students and include too many non-essential courses for a solid good paying manufacturing career.  They need to look at the number of career technical certifications granted, and count them as successful skills delivered to students. Their Associate Degrees should be optional for the more ambitious students seeking more challenging comprehensive credentials.

So maybe the reported skills shortage can be greatly alleviated with the new productivity best practices and by new definitions of the old work augmented with better shop practices that produce more productive teams with new tools to apply to old tasks. If we do this maybe the skills gap can be filled after all.