Wanted: Skilled Workers for Manufacturers

By John Scorza Jun 25, 2012
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Lynn Shotwell, at left, ACIP executive director, and James Schultz, an HR executive, discuss challenges in hiring for manufacturing jobs. Photo by Steven E. Purcell

ATLANTA—Manufacturing is coming back. But manufacturers face a severe skills shortage, and HR professionals are feeling the pressure to fill open positions. To develop a workforce with the needed skills, companies will have to work closely with government bodies and educators.

That bad news flies in the face of broad gains in the manufacturing sector. The Boston Consulting Group recently predicted a renaissance in new manufacturing jobs in the coming years. Since January 2010, the U.S. economy created nearly 500,000 new jobs in manufacturing, according to Jane Oates, assistant secretary of labor at the Employment and Training Administration. Oates participated in “Keeping America Competitive: Addressing the Skills Gap in Manufacturing,” a summit held Sunday at the SHRM 2012 Annual Conference.

“The uptick in manufacturing puts pressure on you to hire the right people,” Bette J. Francis, SPHR, chair-designate of the SHRM Board of Directors, told summit participants. “Our members tell us that there are millions of jobs they just can’t fill,” said Francis, vice president/director of human resources at Wilmington Trust Wealth Advisory Services in Wilmington, Del. Citing competition that American companies face in the global marketplace, Francis added, “We cannot afford to lose our edge.”

Recent survey results from SHRM show the depth of the skills gap problem. A full 75 percent of manufacturing organizations said they were hiring, up from 50 percent two years ago. At the same time, 67 percent of manufacturing organizations that are currently hiring full-time staff are having difficulty recruiting for specific jobs, and recruiting difficulty is rising to pre-recession levels, according to The Ongoing Impact of the Recession: Manufacturing Industry.

“It’s becoming more and more difficult to hire the people who will make your company grow,” said Mark Schmit, vice president of research at SHRM.

Most of the available jobs are hourly positions requiring a mix of the same types of skills that were in demand before the recession and new skills now in demand partly as a result of new high-tech machinery on manufacturing floors. Manufacturers said they are most in need of workers in high-skilled technical positions (91 percent), scientists (89 percent), engineers (87 percent), managers and executives (83 percent), and skilled tradespeople (79 percent).

Job applicants also are lacking important “applied skills,” manufacturers reported. These include critical thinking/problem solving (59 percent), professionalism/work ethic (49 percent), teamwork/collaboration (45 percent) and written communication (37 percent).

James Schultz, advisor to HR VP at Chevron, remarked that the theme of SHRM’s Sunday summit “is not the number of candidates for manufacturing positions but the number of qualified candidates. That’s the challenge we’re facing.” He said that by some estimates there are as many as 10 million open manufacturing positions around the world.

The survey found that to find candidates for hard-to-fill key jobs, a growing percentage of manufacturing employers are turning to veterans. With an increasing number of U.S. veterans returning to the private-sector workforce, 59 percent of manufacturers said they have hired veterans, up from 44 percent in 2011.

Kathleen Martinez, assistant secretary of labor at the Office of Disability Employment Policy, encouraged employers to hire applicants with disabilities. Martinez, who has been blind since birth, noted that her first job was in the manufacturing industry.

An estimated 15 percent to 30 percent of community college students have disabilities, so they represent a significant resource for employers. “The issue is inclusion … so that people with disabilities are just part of the culture,” Martinez said.

Schultz and other speakers stressed that the manufacturing industry alone can’t fill the skills gap. Schultz called on government, educational institutions, nonprofits and other community partners to come together to make sure people develop needed skills. He said there is a particular misalignment between manufacturing and education. He and other speakers said companies must take the lead to define their needs and develop curricula that will teach students the specific skills they will need.

In some cases, manufacturers are having trouble filling jobs because young people just don’t want that type of work. Only one-third of Americans want their children to have a job in manufacturing, according to Brent Weil, senior vice president of the Manufacturing Institute. As one participant commented, young people need to get the message that manufacturing is a viable job path.

John Scorza is associate editor of HR Magazine.
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