Three Ways to Overcome the Manufacturing Skills Gap


ERP Analyst, Software Advice

A recent Deloitte report estimated that as many as 600,000 jobs U.S. manufacturing jobs are unfilled. Why? There’s a skills mismatch in the manufacturing industry. With unemployment sitting at 8.3 percent, this is cause for concern.

Much of the recent coverage around the manufacturing skills gap has focused on its root causes, which are by now familiar: baby boomers are retiring, shop floor automation is increasing the technical skills required in manufacturing jobs, and youth are disinterested in pursuing a manufacturing career.

Whatever the causes, we now need to work together as a nation to overcome the skills deficit. I see three ways to achieve this:

  1. Strengthen educational partnerships;
  2. Invest in corporate in-house training programs; and,
  3. Energize the workforce of tomorrow.

The first two strategies will help manufacturers overcome the problem of hiring a capable workforce in the near-term. Meanwhile, energizing youth about pursuing a manufacturing career will help create a supply of workers for the long-term.

Strengthen Educational Partnerships

Technical colleges (and other parts of academia) are perfectly positioned to equip a new manufacturing workforce with the right skills. There is already an extensive network of schools that partner with manufacturers to teach relevant skills. These partnerships need to be strengthened.

One such partnership is the Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ collaboration with Tooling U–an online training program that provides curricula for everything from CNC machining to welding. Tooling U partners with colleges, trade associations, media groups and industry to develop training programs that align with the skills manufacturers need.

Since its inception, Tooling U has helped 100,000 individuals revamp their skill set to find jobs at roughly 1,200 companies.

Partnerships like those developed at Tooling U need to grow in number and size because they are proven models for workforce development that can have an immediate impact on the skills deficit.

Invest in In-House Training Programs

The success of programs such as Tooling U prove that manufacturers can make a difference when they get involved in workforce training. Manufacturers that are serious about hiring the right people should implement their own skills training programs.

We have a model that shows that training in-house is highly effective: the Training Within Industry program. Hugh Alley, President of First Line Training, pointed out in a recent conversation that this program helped train two million women and eight million men after WWII.

According to Alley, firms that use this program usually achieve close to a 25 percent reduction in the time it takes to train an employee.

Over the last three decades, however, in-house training and apprenticeship programs have steadily declined across the industry. Many of these programs were cut for budgetary reasons. A recent study of UK manufacturers suggests that domestic manufacturers should bring these programs back.

Semta–a UK manufacturing association–analyzed the value of apprenticeship programs to manufacturers. Roughly 80 percent of surveyed UK manufacturers said that their apprenticeship program makes them more productive. Furthermore, 83 percent stated that they will rely on apprenticeships to fill future work needs.

While it may be difficult to find workers with the exact skills to match job openings, manufacturers can train people with the right aptitude. Investing in a talented individual can limit staffing problems and pay substantial dividends for manufacturing productivity.

Energize the Workforce of Tomorrow

Solving the workforce needs of today does little good if the next generation is disinterested in working in manufacturing. In the longer-term, manufacturers will need to get youth interested in manufacturing by exposing them to it in a fun, engaging way.

One example of this is a Tampa Bay program called STEM Goes to Work. The program takes students on manufacturing facility tours. While there, students get to talk with manufacturing employees, management and CEOs. They learn about manufacturing careers and what it takes to land one of those jobs.

According to Janet Bryant, Director of Corporate Development at iDatix, the tours also incorporate a fun element. For instance, when students visited a gear manufacturer, they were given a challenge to build workable gears out of Styrofoam.

Here in Austin, National Instruments gets young people interested in manufacturing and engineering through their Lego Mindstorms project. Lego Mindstorms features a combination of lessons and competitions where students are tasked to build simple robotics.

While these kinds of projects don’t develop manufacturing-specific skills directly, Reut Schwartz-Hebron of Key Change Institute notes that they “help foster critical thinking ability, which ultimately makes it much easier to learn manufacturing skills later in life.”

How do you think we can overcome the manufacturing skills gap today and in the future? Please leave me your thoughts in the comments section.

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  • Samantha

    Great article Derek,  I think education is key, not just for our students but for adults as well. There is a pervasive belief that manufacturers have all moved to China and that this is a dying industry, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Kids also need to be better exposed to the opportunities available in this growing industry to start on the path towards a career in manufacturing before they solidify their career goals.

  • Phil

    Your article is great, and I agree that all three points are
    vital to restoring manufacturing in the US and Canada. 


    I think your Energize the Workforce of Tomorrow section is
    the most important of the three, at this point. 
    The perception is manufacturing will only continue to shrink, yielding
    even fewer career opportunities. Until we are able to overcome that perception,
    it will be difficult to entice young adults to choose manufacturing as a


    The manufacturing community needs a high profile advocate to
    tout manufacturing successes and evangelize manufacturing in the media.  Someone who can remind all of us that the US
    is still a dominate manufacturer of goods in the world.  Someone who can show us that some of the things we do
    in manufacturing are much cooler than some new phone app. 


    Once young adults start to consider manufacturing as a
    career again, your other two points become vital to facilitating a successful
    resurgence of manufacturing in the US and Canada.

  • Toni

    Excellent article. Programs that encourage young adults to join the manufacturing sector are necessary, but I believe programs that target the younger student will be the most successful. The GEAR, Robotics and Lego programs for ages 12 and under are highly sought after. The biggest problem is that they are not readily accessible for all children, either because of location or expense.

    Until the government recognizes how many young people are missing the opportunity to build a foundation in manufacturing in the regular school program, we will remain sorely behind in this field.

    It would be interesting to have a comprehensive study to investigate how much the high school drop-out rate increased, after the shop classes were discontinued. Some young people are more intellectually stimulated, if their hands are involved in problem solving.

  • Michael

    I agree with you Fry, but will add that manufacturing workers are also associated with “union” workers.  With the attack on unions going on it is hard to get people motivated for a job that seems to be losing benefits and income. 

    It is not good for manufacturing employment when elected officials blame the workers, such as those at G.M., for their “excessive” benefits being the cause of the company’s bankruptcy.  Add to this the local governments trying to strip unions rights.  To the uninformed, these things weaken the appeal of the already uninspiring manufacturing jobs.

    Out of the three (3) points, I see the energizing the workforce as the key.  If the workforce understood how high-tech many manufacturing jobs are, more people would be choosing a career path that would fill the skills gap.

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