American manufacturing needs skilled workers

American manufacturing is not dead. In fact, it has accounted for many of the new jobs created since the Great Recession. It will not survive, however, unless it builds up a skilled labor force. Fortunately, industry and the White House are waking up to this challenge.

Many Americans may think that manufacturing is a dying industry, no longer the backbone of America’s economy. But manufacturing employment has accounted for many of the nonfarm payroll jobs created since December 2009 – almost 15 percent of them.

And though only about a tenth of the nation’s total workforce is in manufacturing, recent productivity numbers show manufacturing output per hour is strongly improving – up by 6.3 percent in just the first quarter of this year.

Manufacturing remains at the heart of American innovation. But there’s a crisis looming: Manufacturers can only sustain such high productivity figures by continuing to develop the sector’s current and future workforce. It’s getting harder and harder to find qualified recruits for today’s advanced manufacturing jobs. And if America is to hold onto its cutting edge in skilled manufacturing and innovation, it must train a workforce for the 21st century.

You would think that with 13.9 million unemployed Americans, employers would have their pick of candidates. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Many of those laid off – especially from high-volume assembly manufacturing jobs – do not have the skills needed in today’s modern plant. Like generations before them, they worked “on the line,” repeating the same action over and over again. But those types of repetitive assembly jobs are disappearing and are not likely to return.

Today, the industry needs workers who have the skill to process parts, program and maintain highly sophisticated multitasking machines, and understand how to improve their performance. They need to be problem solvers.

For instance, a person who is making the titanium orthopedic part for a knee replacement needs these skills to produce the part with the precision and quality that will meet FDA standards and last the patient’s lifetime. At the same time, a worker has to be continually on the lookout for the company’s profitability.

Despite the crucial role manufacturing plays in our country, we face a serious risk of not being able to continue making things. In the coming decade, a critical shortage of skilled workers will collide with the retirement of 2.7 million baby boomers from manufacturing jobs. Without a skilled, educated labor pool, US manufacturing cannot compete globally. Without a competitive manufacturing sector, our economy is without an engine to power its recovery.

Though more support for the replenishment of the skilled labor pool is needed, industry and government appear to be moving in the right direction. There are an increasing number of signs that leaders in both circles recognize the gravity of this crisis and the immediacy of the need for action.

President Obama recently announced a “Skills for America’s Future” initiative aimed at training 500,000 workers for advanced manufacturing jobs. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) agrees that this critical issue needs to be discussed at our nation’s highest level in collaboration with industry, governmental agencies, and educators.

This fall, SME joins the American Machine Tool Distributors’ Association and eight leading manufacturing companies in a gathering of our industry’s decision makers at a summit called imX – the Interactive Manufacturing Experience. At the summit, top executives from the largest machine tool builders will collaborate with each other and with proprietors of much smaller shops. They'll work to develop solutions to the manufacturing workforce crisis and other challenges companies and practitioners face in a competitive manufacturing environment.

Manufacturing is finally being recognized as a critical component of a thriving economy. And American manufacturers are competing on a global stage like never before, but they need to rethink the way they make things. Awareness is also growing that a strong manufacturing sector starts with a skilled workforce that is focused on productivity and quality.

The question is: Will America have such a workforce?

SME is confident we can build it, but the conversations about manufacturing’s future must continue – from the shop floor to the Oval Office. They must lead to greater collaboration and increased recognition for the important role of “making things” in making America great.

Mark C. Tomlinson is executive director and chief executive officer of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), a leader in manufacturing workforce development. SME joins the American Machine Tool Distributors’ Association (AMTDA) in developing the Interactive Manufacturing Experience (imX), a summit of manufacturing leaders set to chart a new course for the industry in September 2011. Follow imX on Twitter: @imXevent.

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