The Skills Crisis and Retooling the Lost Generation |

The Skills Crisis and Retooling the Lost Generation

January 202014
The Skills Crisis and Retooling the Lost Generation

By Bill Lydon, Editor

The lack of skilled talent and the retirement of current workforce is a topic at every industry conference. The problem is that I hear few near-term solutions. We lost a generation of workers when we led them to believe that there was no future in manufacturing because it was moving offshore to low labor countries. That offshoring is diminishing as labor rates increase worldwide. In addition, manufacturers are realizing that they must automate manufacturing so they can complete globally. But they do not have the talent required to automate.

Certainly encouraging children in primary and secondary schools to learn more about technology is a worthy endeavor, but we have a problem now. The vast majority of companies quit investing in apprenticeships, internships, and on-the-job training, either believing the knowledge and skills developed with these programs would no longer be needed or expecting that the education system would pick up the slack. In either case, discontinuing those programs had proved to be faulty logic.

Manufacturing companies still need skilled laborers and technicians to achieve and sustain efficient manufacturing. Automation is necessary and requires an educated, skilled workforce. Motivating, educating, and tapping the lost generation of people for manufacturing can be one of the answers if industry and government have the will to invest. The United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 33% of unemployed are in the 18 to 24 year old age group. The age group including 18 to 34 year old people accounts for more than 40% of the total unemployed.


Rather than viewing personnel simply as a cost, the manufacturing industry needs to view them as assets that can be developed. Industry and government should be looking at the 18 to 34 age group of potential workers as an untapped resource and initiate technical training programs to build productive workers. This is the workforce that will make manufacturers successful and help them compete in world markets.

National Association of Manufacturing (NAM)

The National Association of Manufacturing (NAM) has an official policy, HRP-01 Education and the Workforce, stating their position on the need for an educated and knowledge-based workforce. American employees, in turn, need the education and skills to participate in a high performance workforce. The organization’s general education policy includes closer alignment of education and training programs with marketplace demands. This alignment ensures students and workers are prepared for the challenges of a high-skilled, dynamic workplace and supports careers in advanced manufacturing.

NAM recommends “hands-on” learning programs so students understand the knowledge behind technology and its application to real world environments and situations. This includes on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs. NAM suggests that post-secondary education should not be defined only by graduation from a two or four-year institution, but rather by completion of an industry recognized post-secondary credential or an Associate’s Degree. NAM recommends that institutions of higher education should work in cooperation with business to develop services and support non-traditional students and workers who are seeking to increase their training or skills.

Action Items

How can industry engage the lost generation and get the education system in alignment with its needs? These are some thoughts and ideas:

  • Get involved in curriculum advisory committees at local technical/community colleges or universities so they understand what is required.
  • Provide sponsored co-op jobs for educators during the summer so they understand industry needs.
  • Communicate with legislators to support education funding for skilled technical training.
  • Promote hands-on education programs in secondary schools. This is the equivalent of shop classes from days gone by where students learned basics skills in woodworking and metal work. Maybe the “new shop class” is factory instrumentation, FIRST Robotics and applied programming.
  • Start valuing technicians and engineers as much as information technology, business management, marketing and other business functions.
  • Create technician and engineer co-op jobs as an investment to improve industry workforce.
  • Companies could pay retired technicians and engineers to be mentors to the young workforce and as a resource for schools to build more relevant programs.

Final Thoughts

I hear a lot about the lack of skilled talent and the retirement of existing people leaving a void. Various representatives of manufacturing and industry are long on describing the problem, but they seldom offer meaningful solutions. This is a real issue that will impede the growth of industry and it is time for companies to take action and invest. Based on my travels it is clear to me that United States companies are not cooperating and investing in developing the talent required to compete in world markets at the same rate as other countries. In addition, education at the primary and secondary level has become ineffective for a wide range of reasons.

When I personally moderated the International Federation of Robotics Executive Roundtable, we discussed education and workforces issues. One of the panelists on the roundtable, Drew Greenblatt, President & Owner of Marlin Steel, recommended that we all watch the movie Waiting for Superman. I echo his recommendation.

The education system needs reengineering to make it effective. The lack of meaningful cooperation of industry with education has created an open loop system that will never reach meaningful goals without structural change, investment, direction and feedback.

I’ll end with a quote of a commonly used American idiom. “Talk is cheap, but it takes money to buy whisky.”

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