In an interview withQualityMagazine, president of manufacturing consulting company Advanced Technology Services Jeff Owens speaks about the culprit behind-and remedies to--U.S. manufacturing’s shrinking skilled labor pool.

Highly-skilled baby boomers are retiring and manufacturers are facing millions of dollars in losses because the technical skills most in demand are nowhere to be found, says a survey from manufacturing consulting firm Advanced Technology Services (Peoria, IL), which works with clients such as Catepillar and Motorola.

Twenty percent of surveyed executives reported 15 plus floor vacancies, with 41% expecting the same issue five years from now.

In a recent interview withQualityMagazine, President Jeff Owens discussed the implications of these numbers.

QualityMagazine: In what specific ways will these developments impact the manufacturing industry?

Jeff Owens: The retiring baby boomers will create a skills gap that manufacturing will struggle to deal with. The shift of commodity manufacturing off shore has sharpened the United States’ manufacturing's focus on high-precision complex products that require high levels of technical skills to manufacture. The lack of these elite manufacturing technicians is already being felt.

QM: What are companies currently doing to cope with this issue?

JO: Although manufacturers say that training is the key to producing a pipeline of skilled workers to handle today's complex manufacturing, few are investing appropriately to meet the demand. In fact, according to the Nielsen Survey, half of the manufacturers surveyed are investing 1 to 5% in training programs.

QM: What do you think is the major culprit behind these technical skills not evolving with newer generations? What can be done to remedy this?

JO: The problem is complex and has its roots back to the image of manufacturing that was popularized and condemned by songs like Simon and Garfunkel's "Richard Cory". In fact, manufacturing's image has been so tarnished that many of today¹s youth will take a minimum wage job just to wear a suit. The problem is exacerbated by high school counselors that steer students to a college education instead of a more fulfilling job in the trades. But, there are very few vocational programs to be found. And therein lies a big problem. For manufacturing to continue to be vital to U.S. economy, high schools need to do more to prepare students for non-college careers. In fact, the Nielsen survey indicated that 98% of those surveyed felt that it is skill trade educational programs are important. It's also why around half of those same manufacturers feel that among government investments, investing in skilled trades program would provide the best return on investment while only one in five felt investing in national health care program would be a sound option. So with all this said, we need to change the image of manufacturing.

ATS is doing this by taking innovated programs like our TinkerTronics program to the middle schools. The program teaches young kinesthetic students the excitement and challenges of working in a manufacturing environment. The program teaches teamwork and real-world mathematical skills that connects with these students. In addition to exposing students to programs like this, education on what real manufacturing environments are like in the 21st century would be helpful. It's no longer a dark environment with intense manual labor. In fact, many of today¹s manufacturing facilities are world-class technological marvels that require computer savvy operators and elite maintenance technicians to keep them humming along. And the wages paid these individuals dwarf the wages paid to an electronics store employee. It¹s time to reposition manufacturing, rewrite the songs and repaint the image and show that today's manufacturing is a professional career, not just a summer job.

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