Bridging the Skills Trade Gap: Ways to Ensure Future Success

The most pressing issue facing North American manufacturing is the lack of qualified technical labor. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 77 million baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) in the U.S., and by 2030, this demographic will represent an estimated 20% of the population. This means that beginning in 2011, more than 10,000 baby boomers either have or will turn 65 years old each day, and this will continue until the year 2030 (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Furthermore, manufacturing executives should expect 40% of their skilled workforce to retire within the next 5 years. For organizations with annual incomes spanning $10 million to $1 billion, this could mean an average loss of $52 million per company, and for larger companies this could be closer to $100 million. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) reported approximately 20% of companies with 2,000 or fewer workers consider this manufacturing skills gap to be their number one concern.

For the fifth year in a row, Manpower Group’s annual Talent Shortage Survey has reported skilled trade vacancies as being the hardest to fill. To further amplify this growing problem, Manpower Group also reports that only about 6% of students are expected to consider a career in the trades. Each year, up to 600,000 skilled jobs go unfulfilled.

This manufacturing skills gap creates two main dilemmas: first, periods where the technical staff, including maintenance, operations, and safety crews, may be understaffed and overloaded.  The second main dilemma is the need for an influx of new skilled trades personnel who will initially be unfamiliar with specialized systems, equipment, procedures, and failure modes. (Anyone familiar with the nuclear accident at Chernobyl can tell you that this is not a good problem to have.) Personnel should be knowledgeable on how to most effectively operate equipment and recognize equipment problems before they become critical. Examples of how to address the macro component of trade-skills support include:

  • Raising awareness of careers in skilled trades or promoting the image of skilled trades in order to attract a new generation of workers
  • Offering a training tax credit/financial assistance to employers
  • Developing national standards to recognize trades and promote ease of movement across the country
  • Adjusting legislation to make apprenticing more efficient and effective

Additionally, our recruiting, hiring, staffing, job design, and training practices need to change in order to properly address the manufacturing skills gap. Training for technical staff can be hands-on, instructor-led, or virtual, and can use an industrial workstation or a blended approach that includes most or all of the aforementioned methods. Training must be designed with precision and take into account the above-mentioned modalities to ensure learning is maximized. It is also important to pass on as much of the cumulative knowledge of exiting staff by offering coaching, mentoring, and apprenticeship programs (possibly including incentives that will encourage more participants).

One advantage to training the up-and-coming generation of workers is their intuitive grasp of and comfort with technologies. A millennial worker may have already used tools such as virtual reality sets at some point in their background and would be more comfortable with virtual training that is both safe and, since it requires neither a classroom nor an instructor, available at a lower cost than many traditional training methods.

The industry faces many challenges over the next decade, but with proper thought and analysis, combined with a focus on training and development, there is no reason that these challenges cannot be overcome.

GP Strategies Corporation

GP Strategies is a global performance improvement solutions provider of sales and technical training, e-Learning solutions, management consulting and engineering services. GP Strategies' solutions improve the effectiveness of organizations by delivering innovative and superior training, consulting and business improvement services, customized to meet the specific needs of its clients. Clients include Fortune 500 companies, manufacturing, process and energy industries, and other commercial and government customers.

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