The Last Word: Solving the Shortage

February 1, 2008
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The 2008 elections are in full swing. Both the Republican and Democratic debates have been somewhat predictable. As I write this, voters in Nevada, South Carolina and Michigan are set to make their presidential primary choices. In all three states, as in many other parts of the country, people are concerned with the threat of, or actual, job loss.

In Michigan alone, the unemployment rate for November 2007, the most recent available as of this writing, was 7.7%. This is more than 3 percentage points above the national average, and most experts point to the struggling automotive industry as the primary culprit.

In Nevada, unemployment reached 5.4% in November 2007. The falloff in the once-booming new home market in Nevada is a leading cause of this downturn. South Carolina reached 5.9% unemployment for November 2007-an improvement from past years, but still far off from less than 4% of six and seven years ago.

South Carolina also has lost nearly 50,000 manufacturing jobs, primarily in the textile industry, during that time.

The presidential candidates’ solutions to these crises range from imposing tariffs on imported goods to penalizing companies that move manufacturing offshore to creating national programs aimed at re-training those who have lost jobs. Ironically, training and education are the solutions to manufacturing difficulties.

While unemployment is certainly high and many manufacturing jobs have disappeared, the surprising news is that most manufacturers report there is a shortage of qualified people to employ. One manufacturer recently told me that the person with least seniority in his plant has more than 10 years of experience and he can’t find qualified new employees. Others have reported similar challenges.

So, what is the solution? Many companies have simply hired someone who is “trainable” and invested time and effort with that person. This approach may answer an immediate need, but it does not provide for a company’s long-term manufacturing “health.” Another problem with this approach is that manufacturers do all the work on a reactive basis-they continue to search for candidates instead of those prospective employees seeking them out.

Manufacturing needs a “facelift.” Most of you in manufacturing know that today’s shop floor is a vast improvement from the shop floor of 20 years ago. No longer dark and dingy, most manufacturers are using state-of-the-art computerized equipment that stands up to the Xbox and Playstation crowds. No longer confined to restrictive job duties, most manufacturing positions encourage cross-functional problem solving and reward those employees who improve processes. The challenge is to get these and similar messages out to those who are considering starting a career or a career change.

Quality Magazine will be assisting in this effort. At the 10th Annual Quality Measurement Conference, April 28 to May 1, in Clearwater Beach, FL (www.qualitymag.com/qmc) a panel session will focus on developing the next generation of quality and nondestructive test technicians. On this panel will be Steven Hill, plant manager at Lockheed Martin (Oldsmar, FL); Mike McCurry, plant manager at Freightliner (Mt. Holly, NC); Dr. Rod Casto of the University of South Florida Research Foundation (Tampa, FL); George Moran of the Nondestructive Testing Management Association (Celebration, FL); and Dr. Ed Morse of University of North Carolina-Charlotte (Charlotte, NC). All of these panelists are involved in creating awareness, educating and forming business-educational partnerships to further develop interest in manufacturing careers. I encourage any manufacturer faced with the challenge of finding a steady stream of viable employees to attend this conference session. You will hear what is working and have the opportunity to share your experiences-the successes and the frustrations.

The presidential candidates want nationally run programs to bolster employment. At first glance, considering manufacturing and job losses in Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and elsewhere, it would seem a national solution would be appropriate. However, Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina each have different issues leading to their current problems and each requires different solutions. What the new president can do, on a national basis, is create the opportunities for communication and knowledge sharing among states that are successful at solving the manufacturing challenge with those that are struggling. The new president can create financial incentives for businesses and educational institutions-from grade schools through colleges and universities-to partner in creating solutions. Those would be campaign promises I’d like to hear in the remainder of this election year.

What do you think? What would you like to see done to address the current problems in attracting qualified people to quality and manufacturing? Share your thoughts with me at williamst@qualitymag.com.

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