Finally: A Cure for the Skills Gap

Article excerpt

As the strength of industrial stocks in the turbulent stock market suggests, manufacturing remains vitally important to the nation's prosperity. Manufacturing leads in productivity growth--the key to maintaining a New Economy marked by low rates of unemployment and inflation. Manufacturing also accounts for 72 percent of America's exports and 64 percent of industrial research and development.

The Commerce Department's April announcement of the gross domestic product statistics provided surprisingly good news, with a two percent growth in the GDP--twice as much as predicted. At the same time, however, numerous manufacturing companies were announcing plant closings and layoffs. Both of these occurrences indicate a "churning" in the labor market that may continue for some time. While consumer spending and a decline in the trade deficit sparked the growth, the layoffs and plant closings underscore the need for workers to be prepared to respond to setbacks and take advantage of other job opportunities that may arise. And while the improvement in our trade deficit outlook points to the importance of the manufacturing industry in maintaining a healthy economy in the United States, the lack of job security shows the need for individual workers to take charge of their own careers in manufacturing.

With the United States ranked as the world's most productive economy, according to the World Economic Forum, the general outlook is strong for the manufacturing industry. But there are two challenges facing the industry: ensuring the presence of a skilled workforce to provide the backbone for continued growth in a technology-intensive manufacturing sector and ensuring that those skilled workers have recognized and portable skills so that they can ensure their own futures.

The need for skilled workers is growing rapidly. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1950, 60 percent of manufacturing jobs were unskilled; today, only 30 percent are unskilled, and by 2005, the number is expected to shrink to 15 percent. A National Association of Manufacturers survey reports that 88 percent of manufacturers report a shortage of qualified workers in at least one job category, continuing a decline started in 1991.

This shortage threatens the ability of the manufacturing industry to continue to implement new technology, one of the main reasons for its growth in the past decade. More than 50 percent of manufacturing companies report the lack of access to skilled workers as the most significant barrier to adopting technology.

Adding to the demand in the coming years will be the departure from the workforce of many "baby boomers." According to a study by the University of Michigan, the auto industry alone will need to find 250,000 workers by 2005 to replace retirees.

Where are the workers to fill this void? How can manufacturers ensure that these workers have the training and experience to complete their assigned tasks? How can workers verify their skills and transfer them from one manufacturing sector to another? How can high schools, vocational and technical centers, and community and technical colleges prepare students for jobs in the manufacturing industry?

The Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC), in partnership with the National Skill Standards Board (NSSB), has attacked this problem by launching A Blueprint for Workforce Excellence, the first set of nationwide skill standards for all sectors of the manufacturing industry. …