Manufacturing

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Why is there a Skill Shortage/Mismatch?

2 Sep, 2015

By: Jerry Szatan

Labor, particularly skilled labor, is a critical factor in site selection and successful facility operation.  We often read and hear that employers can’t find workers with necessary skills, that job-seekers are held back by their lack of skills and  that training institutions are not providing the right training or that they aren’t reaching students early enough to help shape occupational decisions. 

Training infrastructure and institutions are important for new companies to an area that will have company-specific needs, sometimes for jobs and skills that may not be common in an area. Existing companies have turnover and need retraining to implement new technology and processes.  While these are long-standing needs, today’s falling unemployment rates and tighter labor markets have amplified staffing concern as has concern over retiring baby-boomers and lost skills. Employers may no longer expect to walk in and find unemployed welders or other skilled workers; they realize that they’ll have to build their workforce. Communities that can help do this will have a competitive advantage. I’ve encountered many examples of workforce development efforts in recent site searches including:

  • Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke offers three levels of Mechatronics training, based on Siemens Mechanical Systems from a basic certificate to a two-year associates degree. Instructors traveled to Germany to become certified trainers.

  • High school students in Allentown-Bethlehem operate a centralized warehouse for district school supplies to prepare for jobs in the area’s growing distribution sector

  • Louisiana has rolled out several programs tailored for new employers ranging from building a $22-million manufacturing/training facility for Austria-based Benteler Steel to produce steel tubing in Bossier Parish to enhancing the software developer pipeline for IBM in Baton Rouge

  • In Wisconsin Rapids, food industry employers, who each might need to hire one or two employees per year, cooperated to build enough scale to work with the local community college to create a food-quality technician’s training program based on their collective need

  • In Wichita, public and private sectors partnered to establish the National Center for Aviation Training to support the region’s aviation sector

These programs seem to address many of the common criticisms leveled at underperforming training programs: employers are involved in design, often contributing equipment or instructors; training is for current needs and real jobs; many include outreach to high school students.

If these programs are as good as they seem – and perhaps the promise so far is greater than the result – then why is there so much concern about skill shortages and mismatches? Programs such as these would seem to show that we know how to create effective approaches. Is it a matter of money and resources? Is the scale too small or difficult to increase? Certainly it takes time and effort to organize and implement cooperative efforts. It may be tough to find qualified instructors. It takes time for ideas to spread and for educational and other institutions to act. Skill proficiency takes time; you can’t flip a switch and fill a pipeline of qualified workers.

Perhaps custom programs for new companies, while valuable, are piecemeal and we need more robust basic general workforce readiness for advanced manufacturing. Economic development organizations increasingly are emphasizing workforce development. Perhaps industry and labor need to expand apprenticeship programs. Several states are implementing programs that provide financial incentives, including free tuition for technical college training or offer training for high school students who gain skills and college credit.

Good training programs are a win-win-win for trainees, employers and communities. There are many promising training initiatives and efforts, and in this arena, more is more.

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