Editorial: The Skills Paradox
General Motors plans to eliminate 30,000 jobs this year. Ford is expected to close four plants that employ about 7,500 people, and recently announced plans to cut about 4,000 more salaried jobs in addition to the 2,700 it has already eliminated in 2005. The two auto giants are not alone in cutting jobs; just the two major cases at the moment.
Paradoxically, the serious shortage of qualified employees that a vast majority of U.S. manufacturers are now experiencing is taking an increasingly negative toll on America's ability to compete in the global economy, according to the 2005 Skills Gap Report issued recently by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM, Washington) and Deloitte Consulting LLP (New York).
More than 80 percent of manufacturers are experiencing an overall shortage of qualified workers that cuts across industry sectors, according to Richard Kleinert of Deloitte. Furthermore, 90 percent report a moderate to severe shortage of qualified skilled-production employees, including machinists, operators, craft workers and technicians. This talent shortage is not theoretical, he says; 83 percent of respondents say these shortages are affecting their ability to meet customer demands now.
Addressing this apparent paradox in The Wall Street Journal recently, David Wessel notes that the issue isn't filling jobs that only require muscle and punching in on time; those jobs are going overseas or being automated. Nearly three-fourths of the manufacturers responding to the NAM survey believe that a high-performance workforce is the most important driver of future business success.
This, says Wessel, raises the question: If the jobs are there, many of them good jobs, why aren't more workers in the pipeline? One answer is that manufacturers aren't investing enough in training. The NAM survey found only 50 percent are spending more on training than they did 3 years ago. No wonder that 46 percent of those manufacturers also reported inadequate problem-solving skills among employees, and more than a third cited insufficient reading, writing and communications skills in the workplace. Clearly, manufacturers need to invest more in training to build the skilled workforce they need.
But that's only part of the solution. It's no secret that manufacturing has a bad reputation. Most American high-school students view manufacturing as a dead end. It's also no secret that, for the most part, the American educational system doesn't go out of its way to encourage students to consider careers in manufacturing, follow a technical career path, or even present manufacturing in a favorable light.
NAM advocates increased emphasis on technology-related education in K-12 curricula to better prepare interested students for manufacturing careers. Others advocate placing the burden of job-specific training on the manufacturers. Both are necessary; neither is sufficient alone. The lack of skilled workers paradox will only be solved when educators and manufacturers step up to the challenge as partners in America's future.