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The U.S. Needs to Cultivate High-Tech Workers to Support Manufacturing Growth

American manufacturing is on the rebound, but experts say manufacturers, policymakers and the educational system will need to work together to cultivate a workforce to support the growth.

The Manufacturing Institute reports that over the next decade, a skills gap will leave an estimated 2 million manufacturing jobs unfilled.

Mark Muro, director of policy at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said that while manufacturing jobs are declining in computers, electronic machinery and apparel, they’re rising in transportation equipment and machinery. Muro said the best prospects for job growth in manufacturing subsectors are where products are “complicated” and need ongoing research and development.

“The best prospects for job growth in manufacturing subsectors are where products are complicated and need ongoing research and development.

He noted that in four years, the transportation segment has regained roughly a third of the jobs lost over the previous two decades. “U.S. policy should be focusing on the high-value manufacturing that actually has a chance to survive and grow and pay people a good wage,” Muro said.

Economist Michael Hicks said that technology and automation is enabling manufacturers to produce more with fewer people. He said everything from robotics to statistical process control is driving efficiency. Digitization of production processes is also making things faster.

To put things in context, the average American auto worker increased the number of vehicles they made annually from 13 in 1990 to 18 by 2010. “So we don’t need as many auto workers as we did a generation and a half ago,” said Hicks.

Conversely, what is needed now are skilled and tech-oriented workers who can meet the needs of increasingly advanced manufacturing floors. Richard Gilchrist, chairman of Felsomat USA, said that the blue collar low paid assembly line jobs of the past “will never come back.” Today’s advanced jobs can no longer support an unskilled, untrained recent high school grad and need candidates with associate’s degrees.

Gilchrist, who has 60 employees, needs people like mechatronics engineers, a combination of mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic engineers. These jobs require an associate’s degree and on-the-job training. “The jobs that can come back are high-tech jobs, if we have the industry to support it,” said Gilchrist.

The skills gap is especially problematic at a time when manufacturers are upgrading their facilities and technologies yet aren’t always able to find the talent to support it. Jeannine Kunz, vice president of Tooling U-SME, a Cleveland-based company that helps manufacturers develop in-house training programs, said that nine in 10 manufacturers have a hard time finding workers. She said there “hasn’t been enough effort and activity by employers to really set themselves up for long-term success.”

Companies are responding with more training initiatives and partnerships with local schools. Others are seeking to locate where there are already high concentrations of educated and skilled workforces. There’s also an industry-wide initiative to distill the notion that manufacturing is a low-paid, dirty industry. And because parents can play such a strong role in what their children do after high school, there’s a big drive to sell both parents and students on the idea that manufacturing can offer a well-paying, clean and stable career.

About Craig Guillot

Craig Guillot
Craig Guillot is a business writer based in New Orleans, La. His work has appeared in Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com and CNBC.com. You can read more about his work at www.craigdguillot.com.