What Can Manufacturers Do to Close the Skills Gap?

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Emily NewtonEditor-in-Chief at Revolutionized

Friday, March 18, 2022

The manufacturing industry is dealing with challenges whereby companies can’t find enough qualified people to fill open positions. This is a multipronged issue.

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What Can Manufacturers Do to Close the Skills Gap?
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First, it’s necessary to encourage people to pursue manufacturing jobs. Then, once they have them, the goal is to get them to stay and develop their skills, thereby positively influencing those who get hired after them. Employers must keep people motivated, cultivating workers’ desire to expand their knowledge rather than becoming bored. It won’t be easy to close the skills gap. However, here are some actionable ways to do it.

1. Changing perceptions about manufacturing jobs

Decades ago, many Americans actively sought and planned to work in factories. They viewed the work as respectable and well-paying, often staying with the same employers for most or all of their time in the workforce. However, opinions of manufacturing work have changed. Many people now think of the sector as dull, dangerous and dirty.

Unfortunately, those views persist even when individuals recognize the importance of manufacturing in today’s society. About 77% of Gen Z say it’s more important now than before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, 52% were unwilling to consider front-line manufacturing as a career path.

Manufacturers could help reverse that trend by exposing people to the positive things the industry could offer earlier in their lives. Dr. Franziska Šeimys is the educational adviser of the Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, which represents thousands of European companies, including industrial manufacturers. She explained:

“Many of our member companies cooperate closely with local schools to give young people insights into the company and show them what challenging activities await them there. For example, they offer internships for schoolchildren or organize an open house to show what products the company offers and what professions are trained there.”
 

Of course, young people will have other things influencing them, too. Those include the sentiments of their parents or what careers peers think are most appealing. Even so, ongoing and early efforts to get individuals excited about manufacturing long before entering the workforce could emerge as skills gap solutions.

2. Partner with local educational institutions for improved recruitment

Manufacturers can also start to close the skills gap by engaging with people who already have a strong foundation in the skills needed to thrive in factory work. They can partner with nearby colleges and universities to support other recruitment efforts. It’s especially worthwhile to do that when the skills gaps concern the production of advanced products, such as semiconductors.

Oregon’s Jireh Semiconductor Inc. took that approach when it had 60 openings in November 2021. That number could also double soon due to a planned expansion. Lynn Nelson, the company’s human resources and recruiting manager, said, “Simply put, there are not enough employees for the number of jobs we have open.”

She continued by explaining, “We are looking to find folks who are currently working toward degrees and bring them in as part-time interns while they finish their studies.” Nelson sees this arrangement as a practical way for people to apply their studies to real-world employment. She also noted that both students and graduates tend to adapt to the company’s work much faster than people without that educational background.

Jireh Semiconductor is an advisory board member of Portland Community College’s microelectronics technology program, in which about 15 other semiconductor companies also participate. Members engage with students through mock interviews, guest lectures and equipment donations. Perhaps most important is that 90%-100% of students studying microelectronics technology at the college over the last decade have gotten jobs with the participating companies within three to six months of graduating.

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3. Tackle the skills gap with automation

Analysts suggest that millions of unfilled manufacturing jobs could cost the U.S. economy as much as $1 trillion over the next several years. Being proactive is one of the best ways to mitigate the potential damage. Many manufacturers find skills gap solutions through automation, but that doesn’t mean they always replace humans’ jobs with robots. Collaborative robots, more commonly known as cobots, often supplement people’s duties.

In one example, a Chinese automotive manufacturer uses cobots to tighten screws and other fasteners on engine assemblies. An employee can stand close to a cobot in motion and handle other tasks, such as applying lubrication.

Cobots can also handle some specific manufacturing methods, like welding. Lorch is a German-based company that offers a welding cobot. It has been particularly advantageous in Australia, which is struggling with a skills gap affecting welders.

David Wilton, Lorch’s managing director for the South Pacific region, said, “Small-to medium-sized manufacturing businesses can’t compete in this environment, with many struggling to find and retain key welding personnel. Furthermore, there are constant cost pressures and rapidly advancing technologies.”

When manufacturers can’t solve hiring shortages through traditional means, they often explore how automation might help. “We can’t fill the gap (shortage of welders) fast enough, but there are many forms of welding automation, and it really depends on the application to determine what is the best solution,” Wilton explained.

4. Launch mentoring programs

One of the pressing reasons manufacturers need to close the skills gap is that too many people are currently in the workforce close to retirement. It takes years for a newer worker to acquire many of those retiring employees' capabilities and wisdom. At the same, people from younger generations typically have different perspectives and ideas than older ones. This means that mentoring does not only occur when senior workforce members teach what they know to newer employees.

Instead, manufacturers should consider reverse-mentoring relationships to help with skills gap issues. In those cases, junior-level employees engage in knowledge sharing with industry veterans. Such arrangements can get those more-experienced workers acquainted with new technologies or processes that could help production plants now and in the future.

Jack Thomas is a technical specialist at PrintCity, an additive and digital manufacturing center in Manchester, England. He participates in the reverse-mentorship program there. When discussing his experience, he said, “I have quite a unique specialism — a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters in Science degree.”

He continued, “From a practical point of view, I have brought my digital, fashion and textiles expertise to PrintCity and am often able to support my senior-level colleagues with my wide range of knowledge. They definitely listen to me and respect that I do bring in a different set of skills.”

Traditional mentorship programs can act as skills gap solutions, too. When a younger person gets insights from someone who has been in the workforce and industry for much longer, they see what the future could hold. That should give them the motivation to stick with the manufacturing sector and continually develop their skills.

5. Offer scholarship programs

Scholarship programs can also become skills gap solutions, especially if they make people feel empowered to get the training they need. Some manufacturers also give recipients other perks to foster career growth.

Pratt & Whitney is a jet-engine manufacturer that recently gave $1.25 million toward a scholarship program for minority engineering students at the University of Connecticut. In addition to getting $10,000 in aid for four years, successful applicants will get the chance to take a sophomore-year internship at the manufacturing plant. They’ll also get the opportunity to work on a design project with the company as seniors.

CNC Machines, which sells used CNC equipment to help manufacturers upgrade, also has an annual scholarship. Its program targets students and U.S. veterans. Applicants must submit essays to explain their interest in having manufacturing careers.

Financial obstacles often prevent people from working toward the careers they want, especially if those jobs require specialized skills. Many manufacturing roles require that background, but company representatives can lend a hand through programs like these.

Multiple solutions will help close the skills gap

These are some of the specific ways manufacturers have explored skills gap solutions to keep their workforce competitive. However, it’s important to realize that company representatives will likely need to consider several strategies for attracting and retaining manufacturing workers. A thorough approach is more likely to capture the attention of various groups and get long-term results.

Further Reading

Emily Newton

Editor-in-Chief at Revolutionized

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Emily is a tech and industrial journalist with over four years of experience writing articles for the industrial sector. She’s Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online publication exploring innovations in manufacturing, technology and science. 

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