How Skills Credentialing and Education Can Close the Manufacturing Skills Gap
by Courtney L. Vien and James M. Fraleigh
Many believe that American manufacturing is a dying industry and that its workers are low-skilled employees who don’t need college degrees. In fact, despite the recession and increased foreign competition, manufacturing is still vital to the U.S. economy, producing 11.5 percent of the GDP (The Manufacturing Institute, 2011) and providing 11.8 million employees with intellectually challenging, technologically advanced, well-paying jobs (Deloitte & The Manufacturing Institute, 2011). Even factory-floor workers now require advanced technical skills, and managers expect them to think strategically, solve problems, and make informed decisions.
The manufacturing skills gap
As older, more experienced workers retire and fewer young people choose manufacturing as a career, many U.S. manufacturers struggle to retain a skilled workforce and fill positions. A management skills gap also exists, as managers promoted from floor-level positions often lack business acumen or contemporary skill sets. This weakens production capabilities and may further damage American manufacturers’ ability to compete in a rapidly changing global economy.
Higher education has an important role in overcoming this gap. Community colleges, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and the private sector can cooperate to align classes and curricula to industry-approved standards. One example is the NAM-Endorsed Manufacturing Skills Certification System, developed to provide consistent skills standards across companies and sectors for employers seeking qualified candidates. Created by The Manufacturing Institute, the system also credentials workers who demonstrate its competencies.
Manufacturers cite certification system benefits
A recent University of Phoenix Research Institute study suggests skills certification systems can greatly benefit employers. In 2010, the Institute surveyed a cross-section of manufacturing executives and hiring managers who used or anticipated using the NAM-Endorsed Manufacturing Skills Certification System. They reported that using the system lowered recruiting and entry-level training costs and improved employee retention rates, advancement opportunities, and employee engagement and input. Some mentioned that the system helped them hire employees with a sincere interest in manufacturing, thus reducing turnover. They also noted that the credentialing system reduced training costs by allowing them to pinpoint specific employee needs.
Source: Rouse, R. A., & Miller, L. A. (2010). Creating value from HR: The new credentialed manufacturing workforce. Phoenix, AZ: University of Phoenix Research Institute.
The role of education in closing the gap
Colleges and universities can use these standards to ensure that curricula teach skills that employers have identified as valuable. Educators can also partner with industry groups or manufacturing leaders to design bachelor’s programs that grant relevant degrees or prepare workers for management. Like many professions, manufacturing requires lifelong learning to keep pace with changes in technology, management practices, and global trends. Certifications and degree programs through the doctoral level can help employees understand industry issues in greater depth.
The U.S. manufacturing skills gap must be closed to maintain the industry’s global competitiveness and its contributions to the economy. Colleges and universities can help by providing programs for manufacturing employees of all skill and career levels. Educators can also address the needs of the demographic that most of these workers occupy—adult learners—in three key ways.
First, they can assist workers with families or long work hours by providing flexible scheduling and multiple course-delivery options. Second, they can ensure that coursework applies to the workplace by consulting with manufacturing organizations and employers, and by hiring practitioner faculty with real-world subject-matter experience. Third, because many workers have been out of school for years and are not familiar with enrollment, advising, or financial aid procedures, educational institutions must provide knowledgeable support staff and faculty accustomed to adult learners.
Deloitte & The Manufacturing Institute. (2010). Made in America? What the public thinks about manufacturing today. Retrieved from http://www.deloitte.com/view/en_US/us/Industries/Process-Industrial-Products-Public-Sector/c0175336134ba210VgnVCM2000001c56f00aRCRD.htm
The Manufacturing Institute. (2009). The facts about modern manufacturing (8th ed). Retrieved from http://www.nist.gov/mep/upload/FINAL_NAM_REPORT_PAGES.pdf
Learn more at www.phoenix.edu/institute.
Courtney L. Vien and James M. Fraleigh write on a wide range of topics for the University of Phoenix.
Opinions expressed in blog posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.