It’s a common complaint and worry among manufacturers today that they face a serious skills gap. There’s been plenty of ink spilled about the critical need for people trained in the skilled trades: electricians, welders, machinists, and so on.
But the gap is much greater than the skilled trades, and goes to a breakdown in fundamental knowledge in working with one’s hands, along with the dwindling desire to work in manufacturing. In a country where a generation ago shop classes were nearly universal in high schools, and where most young people grew up learning to use basic hand tools and to troubleshoot and repair basic home and auto breakdowns, it’s now safer to assume that today’s young people have none of that training and none of those skills. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer of our youth see work in manufacturing as a desirable career.
This is a big problem for manufacturers, whose machine operators need some general level of mechanical understanding and ability, and whose maintenance workers need a much more advanced capability to repair and maintain their industrial equipment.
The good news is that solutions are out there. They exist in a number of different forms and are funded in a number of different ways. Here are just a few examples.
You may be familiar with Mike Rowe, host of the popular TV show “Dirty Jobs.” You may not be familiar with his mikeroweWORKS Foundation. It grew out of Rowe’s belief that many young people were being led astray with the notion that a traditional college degree was the only path to success, and that our country was in an increasing struggle because of the lack of skilled tradespeople. Rowe founded and serves as CEO of the foundation, which provides scholarships for young people pursuing education in the skilled trades. As the foundation’s website put it, “Through its scholarship programs, including the Work Ethic Scholarship Program, the Foundation provides financial assistance to qualified individuals with a desire to learn a skill that is in demand. The Foundation has been instrumental in granting more than $3 million in education for trade schools across the country.”
The foundation is funded by Rowe himself, with both his own cash and his fundraising activities, along with donations from private companies, other organizations, and individuals.
States and localities are getting in on the act, too. In Michigan, there’s a modern take on apprenticeships providing a pathway to careers in advanced manufacturing. Michigan Advanced Technician Training (MAT2, pronounced “mat squared”) is an industry-driven public-private partnership involving more than 50 companies that pay tuition for the apprentice’s associates degree, and provide paid on-the-job training. The program covers technical degrees such as Mechatronics and Computerized Numerical Control (CNC), offered by a number of colleges in partnership with the Michigan Talent Agency. It’s aimed at providing solutions for the skills gap, as well as the reality of our aging workforce.
Elsewhere in Michigan, food processing is getting a boost in the Muskegon area by the West Michigan Shoreline Food Processing Initiative, which covers the entire food product supply chain, from farms to finished product distribution. Part of its focus is in worker and manager education. The initiative is providing support for a number of educational development efforts, from boot camps and short courses to the development of a full bachelor’s degree program being developed in conjunction with area manufacturers and Michigan State University. The initiative is also supporting efforts to establish a commercial kitchen and food product development incubation program. It’s another public-private partnership, with support from the Consumers Energy Foundation, the City of Muskegon, Muskegon County, Muskegon Community College, and the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.
Out west, Washington state, recognizing the need for skilled workers for its unique mix of highly advanced manufacturing companies, funded the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Commission (AJAC), “a statewide, nonprofit 501(c)(3) aerospace and advanced manufacturing registered apprenticeship program.” AJAC has developed and now offers seven different registered apprenticeship programs in conjunction with hundreds of participating companies. The programs lead directly to journeyman certification in a specific trade, and can also provide a base for students to achieve an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Sponsoring companies provide employment for students while they participate in the program, so they can earn a living while receiving an education in advanced manufacturing skills.
In other areas of the country, individual companies are attacking the problem. In Wisconsin, Ariens Company, a maker of lawnmowers, snow blowers, and related equipment, has worked with the schools in their headquarters hometown of Brillion to promote Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education for over a decade. Starting with a large donation in 2007 to Brillion High School to double its STEM classroom space, the company has remained a strong partner for the area schools’ technical education efforts, with Ariens engineers providing ongoing mentorship to the students. The Ariens Foundation also provides scholarship opportunities, not just for children of employees, but also for students from Brillion and the surrounding community. The company’s efforts are intended to benefit the community and its citizens in general, but have also led some students to become employees of the company that sponsored that STEM education.
The skills gap is real. But even if we were able to go back to the days of shop classes and home/auto repair “on the job training,” there would still be a gap, since today’s manufacturing environment is so much more technically demanding than what past generations faced. As the above examples show, solutions today must come from a variety of sources (for both funding and training), and provide resources for a variety of wildly differing needs.