Skills gap is small, but growing

The “skills gap” is no big deal now — but it could be in the future, if we don’t take steps to train new workers, writes Harold Sirkin, a Boston Consulting Group partner, in Businessweek.

The shortage of skilled welders, machinists, and industrial machinery mechanics represents less than 1 percent of U.S. manufacturing workers, Sirkin estimates.  Only seven states and five cities — Baton Rouge, Charlotte, Miami, San Antonio, and Wichita — have significant shortages.

However, that could change in the next 10 years as manufacturing grows and baby boomers retire. The average high-skilled manufacturing worker in the U.S. is 56 years old, according to government data.

Technical and community colleges are working with employers to train workers in some parts of the country,  Sirkin writes.

In Georgia, for example, a program called Quick Start provides companies with customized workforce training and retraining, free of charge, in partnership with the state’s technical colleges.

Here in Chicago, the Austin Polytechnical Academy teaches students all aspects of industry and has its own manufacturing training center.

“Most high-skill manufacturing jobs require only a high school education and on-the-job training,” yet few companies recruit in high schools, Sirkin writes. And manufacturing doesn’t appeal to young people seeking bachelor’s degrees, even though half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

The question we need to ask bright young people today is this: Would they be better off with a college degree in mass communication, “poli sci,” or sociology that gets them a job as a retail clerk or waiting tables, or would they be better off with a real skill that qualifies them for a high-paying manufacturing job?

After years of high unemployment and rising college costs, students are wising up about borrowing for a degree in what we used to call “fuzzy studies.” But advanced manufacturing — and other technical careers — may not be open to students with weak math and science skills.

Workers seek ‘Right Skills Now’ training

Manufacturers want skilled workers now — not in two years. The unemployed want jobs now too. In Minneapolis, Right Skills Now offers a fast track to employment, reports USA Today. Studying at two-year colleges, students spend 16 to 18 weeks learning to run computer numerical controlled (CNC) machines.

MINNEAPOLIS — For decades, Mike Hummon, an unemployed substitute music teacher, was frustrated in his quest to become a school band director.

Now, he good-naturedly endures frustrations of a different sort as a 53-year-old student in an accelerated manufacturing class here. In the classroom one day recently, the tiny hole he punched in a small block of metal was a few ten-thousandths of an inch off center. Hummon accepted he’d have to start over and carve a new block.

“It’s OK,” he says. “It’s just (a matter of ) getting a feel for how to use the machine.”

He isn’t just seeking a new career as an operator of computer-controlled factory machines. Hummon, a dishwasher, two social service workers and several laid-off manufacturing and construction workers are on the front line of a campaign to close a puzzling gap in the labor market that has many U.S. employers struggling to find skilled workers despite the 7.8% jobless rate.

Right Skills Now graduates are “virtually assured a job in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area at a starting wage of about $18 an hour after a six-week paid internship,” reports USA Today.

“We can’t wait two years or four years,” for students to graduate college, says Darlene Miller, CEO of Permac Industries, a contract manufacturer in Burnsville, Minn., who promoted the idea for the program last year when she was unable to find seven CNC operators. “We need people now.”

Students can earn industry certification at Dunwoody College of Technology, which is private, and South Central College, which is public. The vast majority of graduates in the first session found jobs quickly.

Miller, a member of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, worked with the Manufacturing Institute to develop Right Skills Now, which has spread to Nevada and will launch soon in Michigan. Courses in welding, production and other factory skills are also planned.

Eighty percent of manufacturers said they couldn’t find enough skilled workers last year, according to a survey by the institute and Deloitte. Manufacturing has regained only 500,000 of the 2.3 million jobs lost in the recession. But many laid-off workers lack high-tech manufacturing skills.

Employers are working with community colleges to train military veterans for high-tech manufacturing jobs, writes Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE.

Training doesn’t guarantee a job

A dozen laid=off workers signed up for a 28-week course to learn precision machining at Manchester Community College, reports the Hartford Courant. Federal funds paid the tuition. But many who completed the training are still looking for work.

Kingsley Ghartey had lost his $15.30-an-hour job more than a year earlier when the plant where he worked closed and moved to Mexico. He quit his part-time, church maintenance job making just over $10 an hour to take the classes.

. . . “I thought after you graduate, you are going to get a job,” Ghartey said.

One student dropped out, reports the Courant. Another finished but went back to his old warehouse job. More than two months after graduation, just four are working as machinists; the other six are looking.

While the U.S. Labor Department says machining is a high-growth job, Connecticut factories eliminated 11,000 machinist jobs in 2009.