Skilled Worker Shortage

by James P. Tate on November 24, 2014

In spite of the relatively high unemployment level (5.9% last month), there are many manufacturing firms that are struggling to find skilled workers.  In several cases, manufacturers can’t increase capacity or build market share because of the shortage of skilled labor.

For many decades, the United States has focused on college education for a generation of young workers.  Studies have shown that a college education will lead to a higher lifetime income for the graduate.  The value of vocational education and skilled trades has been downgraded, if not ignored by politicians, parents and the business community.  We are now reaping what we have sown for the past two decades.

The need for skilled technicians in manufacturing firms has never been greater and is continuing to grow.  Germany has recognized this need and has developed a strong vocational training program across a wide range of manufacturing disciplines.  The result of their training programs has been higher salaries for skilled workers; an expansion of the industrial base and a reputation for high quality products.  In spite of the high wages, German firms command a strong share of their markets and provide substantial employment opportunities for their youth.

The cost of vocational education or apprenticeship programs is significantly less than a four-year college education.  The apprentice will probably have less debt to repay after completing the program.  The chances for employment for a skilled craftsman can be better than for a new college graduate.  The recent article, “Schumpter- Got Skills”, in the August 23, 2014 issue of The Economist magazine offers more insight into this labor problem and potential solutions.

What is a manufacturer to do in the face of this labor shortage?  There are three possible options.  First, find an apprenticeship program at a local labor union.  Second, ask a local community college to help develop a program to train workers in the needed skills.  Third, develop your own vocational training, either alone or in conjunction with a local community college.  If you face very specific skill levels, such as machine maintenance for your machinery, the equipment vendor may offer training courses.  Some of the training programs can be delivered on-line as well as in a work shop setting.

If you elect to sponsor your own training program, you will need to define the necessary skills and training required; set preliminary qualifications for entrance to the program; be prepared to give workers time off to take training classes; and develop a mutual agreement with program graduates to keep them employed at your plant upon completion of the training.

These are not insurmountable criteria and you may find that an in-house training program is the fastest and most secure means to gain the skill levels you need.  Your objective to increase production and improve quality may best attained by pulling yourself up by your own boot straps.

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