Workforce Development: Closing the Skills Gap Now and in the Future
To maintain the ceramic industry's market advantages, manufacturing leadership must develop and executive a strategy for changes that positively impact workforce development and close the skills gap.
The world of manufacturing is ever changing. The economic outlook projects improvement in manufacturing conditions, but thousands, and even millions, of jobs in the U.S. go unfulfilled because of a skills gap. As such, the skills gap has challenged workforce developers nationwide. As the McKinsey Global Institute points out in a recent study, “Workforce availability threatens to reduce economic growth by 40%, despite continuing productivity from automation and other elements of supply-chain optimization.1
Where manufacturing jobs were once plentiful, the landscape has changed from low-skilled, high-paying jobs to the need for a highly skilled and trained workforce. This is the norm in manufacturing, with its strong underpinning of technology, automation, the Internet of Things, and a technically trained manufacturing workforce.
Yet, leaders in manufacturing—glass and ceramics included—realize that the requirements for maintaining competitiveness and technical advantage in the marketplace are dynamic. Equipment upgrades are required. Technical innovation in processes must continually be updated. Information technology requirements must be state of the art. The same applies to the workforce: skills and training to use and apply new technology equipment, processes and support infrastructure must be modernized using continuous learning methods.
Equally as important—perhaps today as never before—is the need to complement technical skills with soft skills (people skills). To maintain the ceramic industry’s market advantages, manufacturing leadership must develop and execute a strategy for changes that positively impact workforce development and close the skills gap.
As no single solution exists for all companies, each manufacturer should consider the needs of the company, and well as the demographics of the workforce of the future. Following are some planning considerations highlighted by Blake Moret of Rockwell Automation and Amy Hirsh Robinson of the Interchange Group:
- Attract students (both high school and college) early, feeding their interest in manufacturing, and showing the benefits of a career in manufacturing. This will also include working with local schools, teachers and parents.2
- For experienced workers (existing and new hires), organizational leadership must have a strategy for lifelong learning in order to keep experienced workers’ skills updated with the latest technology. It is critical to be mindful that when machinery becomes more connected in the plant and across facilities (e.g., smart factory), companies will need a workforce that is familiar with diverse control and information technologies, and who are problem solvers, creative thinkers, and knowledge workers (including being self-directed learners).3
- Clearly communicate your company’s employer value proposition (EVP). The EVP communicates to the future workforce the value that employees receive in exchange for working for your company, while helping to differentiate your organization from the competition. As Robinson points out, “Millennials, in particular, will need to understand and accept the EVP to be convinced to work for any given company.4
Where the workforce of the past may have had a manual labor orientation, this situation has quickly gone away as more automation is added in the manufacturing arena. For example, James Hagerty’s article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Meet the New Generation of Robots for Manufacturing” highlights that the use of robots has increased and that they are now smarter, more mobile, more flexible, and are being applied in many different areas of the manufacturing process. Furthermore, Hagerty notes that the U.S. has 152 robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees (compared to 30 per 10,000 in China).5
Analysts also predict that, through 2024, the top job skills will involve computers. As such, manufacturing employees now need not just manual labor skills, but programming, automation controls, and other math- and science-related skills. These skills will also need to be refreshed as technology changes and gains additional capability. With this vigorous requirement for skills upgrades and closing the skills gap for the current and future ceramic manufacturing sector, what are options for workforce development?
Academia and Industry Collaboration
Institutions of higher education serve an important role in teaching and training the technology experts of the future. As such, they play an important role in closing the manufacturing skills gap.
Thomas Lichtenberger, writing in an article for the Association for Career & Technical Education, makes an important observation about the importance of colleges (both universities and community colleges) connecting with local industry experts as part of the strategy: “While STEM instructors are knowledgeable in their fields, it is important to tap outside resources, namely local industry experts, to help expose students to the skills they will need to enter the workforce upon graduation. On a smaller scale, instructors can ask employers to visit the classroom and talk with students. On a larger scale, universities and colleges should assemble a curriculum directory board of local industry professionals to weigh in on what should be taught in the classroom. Forging these connections now ensures that students will be ready to enter in-demand occupations in the future.6
As the Center for American Progress points out, “A Community College and Industry Partnership is a collaboration between a community college and an individual business, group of firms, chamber of commerce, industry association, or sector partnership with the purpose of using the combined resources to create alternative college education programs that are tightly linked to regional economic development and labor force needs for nontraditional students—both younger workforce entrants and older ones in need of skills and education upgrades.7
This approach allows the company to identify its skills gaps with the educational institution, which then can develop a strategy for providing learning to future employees, with the incentive of doing a co-op (work and study program) or guaranteed hiring upon completing the program requirements. A good example of this strategy is the Corning Inc. Technology Pipeline Program, which is described as follows:
Corning has strategically built its pool of top-notch technicians over recent years from a creative partnership with Corning Community College called the Technology Pipeline Program. The initiative provides students a rigorous, two-year course of scientific and engineering study at the college. Along the way, students also spend at least one day a week working in Corning labs—more during semester breaks—as they learn to operate experimental equipment and interpret data. Upon completing the program, the trainees transition to full-time technician positions.8
Learning Solutions Companies
Many learning solutions companies focus on closing the skills gap. For example, TrainingIndustry provides an annual “Top Workforce Development Providers” list. Another example is Tooling U-SME, which “delivers versatile, competency-based learning and development solutions to the manufacturing community, working with more than half of all Fortune 500® manufacturing companies, as well as educational institutions across the country.9
“The alliances Tooling U-SME cultivates are key to the success of the workforce training programs we develop for our partners in the manufacturing community,” said Jeannine Kunz, vice president of Tooling U-SME. “We work with thousands of manufacturers and hundreds of schools, both high school and post-secondary, to deliver competency-based learning and development solutions that produce highly skilled talent. Tooling U-SME’s blended learning solutions includes a suite of online classes, instructor-led courses, books and videos, certifications, and custom content—all designed to help companies and educators build high performers that can keep up with the demands of new technology.”
Since most apprenticeships involve on-the-job work with a mentor, these programs provide substantial training, allowing the apprentice to learn job specific skills in the workplace. The result is that company technical skills that are vital to manufacturing performance grow, employees are gained, and their skill set is developed and strengthened. As Jess Penny points out, “apprenticeships bring opportunity; to attract new talent, offer progression and develop a motivated, skilled and qualified workforce.10
With many states promoting workforce development initiatives, research has confirmed the benefits of an apprenticeship strategy, stating, “Michigan is considering a statewide version of Bekum America Corporation’s apprenticeship program in Williamston, Mich., where students receive 8,000 hours of hands-on training coupled with 60 hours of academic instruction in a partnering community college. The training is free to the apprentice, with a job promise at the end of the session. Bekum calls it ‘The Other Four-Year Degree.11
Chambers of Commerce
When looking for sources to assist with your workforce development strategy, look for local workforce development groups, such as those under the chamber of commerce umbrella and those that might be run through state employment offices.
Promote Your Company
Every company can take its own step to get its name promoted for the purpose of encouraging its future workforce. Again, Robinson provides an important point: “Educate prospective employees about the industry, including the extraordinary career and earning opportunities available and the exciting innovations in technology. Videos and shop floor tours are great ways to introduce millennials to modern manufacturing. Informational interviews with peers who can tell them about the work, their advancement and salaries will also serve to debunk outdated myths about manufacturing.4
The ability for workforce members to communicate effectively, collaborate in teams, perform in an information-sharing environment, and overall, to be a part of an adaptive, flexible and changing work culture that underpins a successful organization is vital in the current and future world of manufacturing. As such, it is important that workforce development efforts also consider building people skills.
As the globalization of manufacturing continues, the workforce may likely be called on to interface with co-workers, customers, and work cultures that are not based in the U.S. Thus, the ability to work with different cultures and countries, and well as the associated language considerations, is important. Human resource departments, communications consultants, and local university instructors are viable resources that a manufacturing company can go to for assistance. In addition, the local chambers of commerce occasionally have funding to support or lead seminars for teaching workers these soft skills.
Hiring and nurturing employees that can help your company close the skills gap is critical for long-term manufacturing progress. Your current and future employees are your company’s most valuable asset. Skilled, productive, energetic and motivated employees directly impact the manufacturing bottom line.
Developing an ongoing workforce development strategy can be a key difference in your company maintaining its market advantage. To achieve this, your organization will need to take a proactive stance in defining methods to attract the right employees and build the skill sets required for ongoing success.
For more information, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Moret, B., “Closing the Manufacturing Workforce Skills Gap,” www.industryweek.com/education-training/closing-manufacturing-workforce-skills-gap.
4. Robinson, A.H., “Closing the Skills Gap in Manufacturing: 5 Strategies for Attracting & Keeping Younger Workers,” www.hci.org/blog/closing-skills-gap-manufacturing-5-strategies-attracting-keeping-younger-workers.
5. Hagerty, J., “Meet the New Generation of Robots for Manufacturing,” www.wsj.com/articles/meet-the-new-generation-of-robots-for-manufacturing-1433300884.
6. Lichtenberger, T., “5 Things Colleges and Universities Can Do Right Now to Help Close the STEM Skills Gap,” http://industryconnect.acteonline.org/2017/05/5-things-colleges-and-universities-can-do-right-now-to-help-close-the-stem-skills-gap.html.
7. Soares, L., “The Power of the Education-Industry Partnership,” www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2010/10/04/8518/the-power-of-the-education-industry-partnership/.
8. “Plugged in to Higher Education,” www.corning.com/worldwide/en/-sustainability/articles/people/community/education/STEM/plugged-in-to-higher-education.html.
9. “Society for Human Resource Development’s Vendor Directory,” http://vendordirectory.shrm.org/.
10. Penny, J., “Closing the Manufacturing Skills Gap with Apprenticeship Levy,” www.electronicspecifier.com/blog/closing-the-manufacturing-skills-gap-with-apprenticeship-levy.
11. Claborn, D., “Closing the Gap Between Manufacturing Employers’ Needs and Workers’ Skills,” www.areadevelopment.com/skilled-workforce-STEM/Workforce-2014/21st-century-STEM-workforce-development-282827612.shtml.