Rebooting the Manufacturing Workforce: There are plenty of jobs available, but are there enough skilled workers to fill them?

Author:Gilmore, Savannah

The days of rote assembly line work--when workers simply had to know their machine or their step in the production process--are long gone, replaced by new technology and automation that have improved the products or the processes used to create them. Such "advanced manufacturing" requires skilled employees who are more adaptable and flexible than in previous years--workers who understand how the entire production process works. They must be familiar with a variety of machines and have the critical thinking and computer skills (some would add math and reading skills) needed to fix the machines or the processes when they fail.

"While some remaining job roles will require less technically skilled workers, ironically, these trends and innovations actually demand more skilled workers," write the authors of a joint report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

Are we preparing enough of these skilled workers?

Many feel we aren't. They argue that thousands of manufacturing jobs remain open because there are not enough qualified workers to fill them. They believe the country's workforce training has failed to stay ahead of technological advancements, resulting in a lack of workers with the skills needed by manufacturers today and--more important--tomorrow.

"When you have a lot of jobs but you don't have the trained workforce to do those jobs, it's a problem," says Kentucky Representative Jim DeCesare (R).

Researchers Andrew Weaver, from the University of Illinois, and Paul Osterman, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, assess the issue a little differently. They studied the manufacturing workforce and found there was a generally modest demand for higher-level skills. Surprisingly, three-quarters of manufacturers had plenty of qualified job applicants and no difficulties hiring. They argue that the jobs staying vacant the longest are not the ones requiring advanced computer skills or keen critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities; rather, they are the ones demanding higher level math and reading skills.

"This debate frequently gets framed as a pure science, technology, engineering and math skills shortage," Weaver says. "But it turns out reading also is a robust predictor of longer term hiring difficulty. It certainly gives a more nuanced picture of skill challenges in manufacturing, and it really cuts against many of the prevailing narratives about the American workforce."

Whatever it is that workers will need, for DeCesare...

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