Although it’s not exactly a new problem within industry in the United States, there has been a definite uptick in the overall attention being given to the “lack of qualified personnel” issue we are experiencing.

Over the past few months, I’ve attended numerous conferences and trade shows covering lots of different professional areas; commercial lending, insurance, manufacturing… and a common theme running through them all is how companies are desperately struggling to deal with the vacuum of available talent. At one particular show in Massachusetts, 50% of the breakout seminars spoke directly to employee skills, continuing education and keeping/attracting new talent. Almost every one of these talks was at full capacity with people looking for some idea on to make their companies more attractive.

As an engineer and Lean practitioner, this of course got me wondering about what the true root cause is. Good help is hard to find, sure, but is it really that big of an issue? And why so much attention now? 20 years ago I had trouble finding engineers that had the skillsets I needed them to have, so it’s not as if the problem is new. Another scheme I’ve heard is that it’s because our “up-and-coming generation” (Millennials, specifically) are disenfranchised and lazy - they simply don’t want to work. Could the problem be just that easy? Is it purely generational? Personally, I’m not buying it. Every generation thinks that they work harder than the newest one. As a Gen-X engineer, I can remember being fresh out of school and having my generation criticized for the same things as I hear folks saying now about the latest crop of 20-somethings. It’s a pattern that gets repeated over and over, and I don’t think the theory has much going for it.

Perhaps it is lack of worker training, which is the top complaint I see repeated from CEO’s and business owners. Perhaps America has simply fallen behind other nations in providing the necessary education needed to crank out skilled workers. STEM education has certainly been big of late. In fact, the President’s 2017 budget calls for $7 billion to be allocated towards it. This is supported, in part, by the White House’s 143-page 5 year Strategic Plan on STEM Education which is designed to address the issue. While education availability and quality is certainly important, I still wonder if that’s really the core problem. Manufacturers will say it is, of course, because that shifts the blame (and the cost) of training back onto the public sector. In a 2012 New York Times article about Apple keeping manufacturing jobs in China and not reshoring them, an Apple executive admitted as much by saying “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems.” In other words – they’ll go where they can get the job done adequately for the least cost.

I remember how angry I got when I first read that article. I’m all for capitalism – after all, companies exist to make money by however means they can – produce a product, provide a service, etc. I did the same thing when I ran plants. If I could get something done somewhere else at the same quality level for less cash, why wouldn’t I? Similarly, the case can be made that we wouldn’t even have some of the products that we do if it weren’t for low-cost/fast turnaround solutions. However, this argument is a two-way street. Manufacturers complain that they have no choice but to go outside the country due to the lack of a skilled domestic workforce, and that they can get the same work done, at the same quality level, for pennies on the dollar. However the reverse is also true, which is where I take the Apple exec’s comments to task. If manufacturers continually take jobs and move them beyond our reach, why do they expect that there will ever be a large domestic pool of resources to pick from? People need jobs, and if a certain type of job is disappearing (manufacturing), then folks are going to go out and learn how to do something else.

So what comes first – the chicken (jobs), or the egg (a skilled workforce)? How can American workers, who strive for a good work/life balance and comfortable living in a first-world country compete with foreign workers who live in dormitories on-site at their employers’ factories? Furthermore - is that even a fair expectation to have? The playing fields are certainly not level. I’ve been to 100’s of plants throughout the USA, and I’ve never seen suicide nets outside any of them like they had to install outside the factories that make Apple products. So, I’d like to ask the Apple exec: “What about this? Is this your problem? Understanding how important flexible manufacturing is to your industry (and others) – are your cost savings really worth creating a culture so bad that people prefer death to continuing to work?”

In the end, I don’t think there is one right answer. As is typically true with larger problems, there are several root causes. Fixing just one contributor won’t make the problem go away. It’s going to take a team effort, fought on many fronts, to solve this issue. And I have no doubts that we’re up for it.