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One of the Prime Challenges of Our Era: the Manufacturing Skills Gap

2012 June 15
by andreakbass

These past two years have seen a breath of fresh air for American manufacturing, but the previous years are still too close not to be remembered. In 1950, manufacturing provided 30% of the jobs in the United States. Today, that figure stands closer to 9%. The last decade alone has witnessed the outsourcing (or automation) of over five million U.S. factory jobs. While the past 20-some months have been a much-needed respite to that trend, with our economy gaining 334,000 new industrial jobs, the situation remains unstable, to say the very least.

Some economists and industry leaders estimate that there are over 600,000 manufacturing positions available this moment in the United States for the taking. At PEI alone we’ve added several new critical positions in the past few months, including new machinists, a new sales engineer (Greg Pollack), and a new sales rep on the West Coast. Yet despite the potentially lucrative number of jobs available in this country, manufacturing can’t seem to find enough qualified candidates. In the past few years, machining processes have become ever more advanced and digitized, leaving otherwise talented, experienced workers out in the cold in regards to having the right skills for the right job at that right moment.

The cumulative effects of outsourcing and automation throughout the 90s and 00s have created a brand-new, oftentimes bewildering environment for American workers to navigate. But there are signs that much of this might be changing, or at least changeable. Talk is in the air of creating a series of up to fifteen “manufacturing institutes” across this country to help – amongst other things – American workers develop the knowledge-base to become confident and competitive producers in the global economy. Additionally, many large American companies have – completely on their own accord – “insourced” manufacturing jobs back to the United States. A recent report by Marketwire triumphantly crows that up to 3 million fresh American manufacturing jobs could be created as soon as 2015, on account of the rising labor costs of doing business in countries like China. These potential jobs could, according to the estimate, generate $100 billion in new export opportunities for the United States.

All of these facts and figures are – of course – tarnished by the harsh rhetoric of a Presidential election year, with both parties taking shrill credit for the moderate renaissance in American manufacturing. But for now at least, these 3 million projected jobs remain unrealizable. In the meanwhile, the best thing we can do as a country is begin training (and in some cases retraining) a generation of skilled laborers to create American products worthy of their name.

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