Special Report: Training & Education
Wednesday | 08 January, 2014 | 11:17 am

New realities, new opportunities

Written by By Kenneth A. Hooker

Developing the skills of the next generation is critical to the industry’s future

December 2013 - As is often the case, the conventional wisdom surrounding the U.S. industrial job market is largely wrong. Among the common misconceptions: 

• Offshoring has led to a dearth of manufacturing jobs in the United States, a situation that is likely to get worse as time goes on.

• Most manufacturing jobs that remain are unskilled, poorly paid and offer little opportunity for advancement.

• A four-year university education offers the only reliable path to a satisfying, secure and lucrative career.  

Of course, not everyone accepts these statements as facts. Many U.S. manufacturers are facing a shortage of workers with the skills and inclination to tackle today’s manufacturing jobs. They’re eager to hire bright, talented and technologically sophisticated young people to fill the gaps left as Baby Boomers and Generation X approach retirement. Far too many young college graduates are finding themselves underemployed and unable to pay off student loans.

One challenge for the metalworking industry to overcome is the outdated and unappealing stereotypes that keep talented students, their parents, teachers and counselors from considering industrial work as a viable career option. Another is to provide education and training these students will need to develop their skills. 

Where things stand

Published in September, the Industrial Market Barometer survey of 1,200 manufacturers points to a manufacturing sector that is reinventing itself. More than half of the companies grew in 2013 and nearly two-thirds expect to grow next year. They are harnessing technology to increase productivity, monitor inventory and make custom products—and these innovations are paying off in new opportunities. A majority of companies surveyed are seeking to hire line workers; engineers; skilled tradespeople; and sales, marketing and management staff. 

The report also asserts the industry’s biological clock is ticking. The respondents’ existing workforce is heavily populated by employees aged 45 and older, and only 25 percent of workers are 30 or younger, the group that will be needed to fill 75 percent of industrial jobs by 2025. With three out of four respondents agreeing that negative perceptions of manufacturing prevent new generations from entering the field, the report emphasizes the need for a “succession plan” to keep the sector strong. 


Reshoring’s role

This need becomes more acute as a trend toward reshoring takes hold. More and more companies are discovering that low labor costs, which led them to transfer manufacturing operations from the U.S. to China and other developing countries, are often offset by other disadvantages of offshore production. That fact, coupled with quickly rising wage rates overseas, is prompting companies to reconsider the wisdom of their strategy. 

Harry Moser, founder and president of the Reshoring Initiative, is both a student and proponent of this trend. In an article from the October 2013 issue of FFJournal, Moser cites a variety of reasons companies in the metals industry have decided to bring their manufacturing operations back home. Wage and currency changes abroad represent one important factor, but quality issues, freight costs and delivery problems, time and money spent on travel, and the risk or loss of intellectual property rights, also affect these decisions. Moser asserts the total costs associated with offshore manufacturing are often higher than those for domestic production.  

In the article, Moser lays out some potential reshoring scenarios and estimates their cumulative impact on the industrial job market. These estimates range from 500,000 reshored manufacturing jobs generating 1 million new U.S. jobs to 3 million reshored manufacturing jobs with the potential to generate 6 million new U.S jobs overall. Any of these developments would have a significant impact on the U.S. economy and the domestic labor market, and all would greatly increase the demand for already scarce skilled industrial workers.

Meeting the demand   

Where are these workers to come from if young people are reluctant to enter the manufacturing sector? Moser and others say it’s critical to publicize the fact these job opportunities exist and that they offer paths to secure, satisfying and well-compensated careers.

Moser says, “One of the reasons smart kids don’t want to go into manufacturing is because they think all of the jobs have been outsourced to China or Mexico. Why would they want to enter an associates degree program or a four-year apprenticeship if there aren’t going to be any jobs? That’s why it’s important to promote the success of reshoring—to improve the attractiveness of manufacturing careers.  Reshoring needs recruiting, and recruiting needs for reshoring to be visibly succeeding.”  

MM-1213-special-image2Success stories about technical training also are important. Meeting with Labor Department officials in 2012, Moser related the experience of Dunwoody College of Technology in Michigan. He pointed out that 21 of the 22 students who had recently graduated with associate of applied science degrees from Dunwoody’s machine tool technology program were fully employed in the industry when they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. By comparison, 53 percent of college graduates are now unemployed or underemployed six months after graduation.

“It’s a major problem that our society promotes the idea of four-year university education over other types of training and credentials,” Moser says. “The Bureau of Labor Statistics has widely distributed a chart headed ‘Education Pays’ that suggests a college degree pays off with $1 million more in lifetime income. That’s the basis for writers, economists and politicians to say that everybody needs to go to university and it has tended to drown out the appeal of doing anything else. I argued that it should say ‘Education and Training Pay,’ and should show the income of people who have completed an apprenticeship or earned some other kind of credential. They’ve actually initiated such a change, so I’m very proud of that.”

Carl Peters is director of technical training for Cleveland-based Lincoln Electric Co., which conducts welding classes and produces training equipment and materials. Peters also emphasizes the need to promote industrial careers. “One of the things we have to do and are starting to do is to teach career pathways in the skilled trades, and not just teach the skills themselves. So when we talk to youth organizations like 4-H or the Boy Scouts, the focus is not on becoming a good welder (even though they’ll learn to make some basic welds), but rather on what some of the career pathways in the skilled trades are. That includes metallurgy, engineering, owning a company, and on and on. We want them to see that it’s not a choice between either a skilled trade or college, and to understand how to use a skilled trade as a path toward a fulfilling occupation with a two-year or four-year college degree,” Peters says.

Promoting a professional image

One educational model that could help promote technical training in the United States is already common in parts of Europe, particularly in Germany and Austria. According to Moser, 70 percent of young people in those countries go into apprenticeship programs at the age of 16 or 17. Many of them go back to school at 20 or 25 to pursue an engineering degree, a Master of Business Administration or other higher education. Most of them come out of apprenticeships with marketable skills, which are referred to as professions.

“A person who goes into the machining profession isn’t someone who loads a piece of metal into a machine, but rather one who programs the tools and figures out what machine to use. That’s a professional, and the same is true of someone who goes into plumbing or carpentry. If we would adopt that terminology here, it would help overcome the stigma attached to vocations and trades,” Moser says.

Peters thinks that projecting a professional image matters, not just in appealing to students, but also to their parents and counselors. “Something as simple as the literature or message we put out can have an impact, if we’re showing pictures that make the work look dirty and dangerous. Instead, show pictures of robotics and automation and work that is moving in a cleaner environment,” he says.

New and different skill sets

Technological advances that have boosted productivity in manufacturing plants have also broadened the skills workers need to perform successfully. To take full advantage of new tools, workers must be able to program equipment properly for the particular task at hand. They have to be able to adjust to machines that monitor and record performance as the work proceeds, and that will sound a warning or actually shut down if the work is not of sufficient quality. 

Peters says in earlier days, the emphasis was on more basic skills. “You’d come out of vocational high school knowing the basic skills of how toMM-1213-special-image3 weld, but without learning much of the science or math behind the process. You’d get the basics in school and learn the specifics on the job, and you weren’t as concerned about the theory.

“The basics are still important. One thing we’ve found is that if we take someone who is a good welder and understands a good arc, we can train that person to program and run the welding robot better than someone who knows computers but isn’t an experienced welder. We’re also seeing a lot more teamwork and collaborative effort in welding today. This involves critical thinking and communication skills, too.

“More than specific skills, though, what employers are looking for is a worker who’s drug-free and who comes in with a good attitude willing to learn. I’m seeing more and more that companies are hiring potential, character and attitude, and then are willing to teach the other skills,” Peters says.

Appealing to Millennials

Because students today are so comfortable with online media and instantaneous communication, trainers have to adapt their techniques to suit their students’ favored learning methods. Peters says students who encounter a problem while working on a project can get frustrated waiting for an instructor to come around and help. “They want to be able to pull something up on an iPad that will show them how to solve the problem. I think they want more flexibility in their training. They question whether it makes sense to come to a classroom and spend 20 percent of the time learning something they could learn online at home. And there are some economies to that, so if we’re smart, the industry will adapt our training methods to the way they like to learn,” he says.

Lincoln Electric has developed one training tool that puts its students’ video gaming experience to good use: a virtual reality welding station. They can put on the helmet and weld in virtual reality, introducing them to the work without the intimidation factor of fire, sparks and flames.  

It will take a variety of steps—such as innovative training techniques, concerted efforts to improve the image of skilled trades and steady promotion of industrial career opportunities—to meet the labor demands of U.S. manufacturing in the years to come.MM


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