Grabbing the skilled-labor issue by the horns

February 16, 2010
By: Tim Heston

High unemployment has muted manufacturing’s cry for skilled workers, but the cry is still there. It’s a paradox. As manufacturers shed unskilled workers, those who are left must be more skilled and versatile than ever. According to the Labor Department, American manufacturing produces more value per worker than ever before: eight times more productive, in real dollar terms, than workers were in 1941, thanks to skills and application of technology.

Technology, though, presents a problem for those training tomorrow’s skilled labor force. When it comes to training, it’s true that shop classes are shuttered in part because of misperceptions. School leaders follow media coverage of our “service-based economy” and adjust curricula to suit. But even during the good times, this wasn’t the only reason schools shifted resources away from shop classes.

Shop class is expensive.

Can you image a school buying the latest and greatest equipment, just as it forces teachers to take furlough days to make budget? Even conventional shop classes, with basic equipment, cost more per student than English classes. (As an aside, you could ask why schools spend so much on sports, which is also more expensive than English class. But follow the money—ticket sales, sponsorships, and the rest—and these programs may not be such a huge drain on cash as they might appear.)

The solution could involve sending more money to schools by raising taxes, but we know that’s not likely. Another option is for industry leaders to take matters into their own hands.  This is what’s happening in northern Ohio. Lakeland Community College is teaming up with the Alliance for Working Together, a group of 60 local manufacturers, to develop a manufacturing degree program.

AWT member Rich Peterson is vice president of business development at Astro Manufacturing, a metal fabrication and machining company in Eastlake, Ohio. He told The News-Herald, a northern Ohio newspaper, that the group is working to change manufacturing’s image and expose kids to what’s really going on at today’s manufacturing enterprises.

The group may solve another issue. Peterson said the program details are being sorted out, but he asked a good question: "Where can they do work with equipment? Can they come [to different companies] and the company will sponsor that?”

That may be a viable solution. Many say kids just aren’t exposed to manufacturing technologies. That’s true, but it’s not just because of manufacturing’s image and lack of media coverage. Machines cost a lot of money. Sure, plant tours for school kids are great, but letting students operate machines (with appropriate supervision, of course) would be something else. Exposing kids early on like this would counteract the erroneous notion that U.S. manufacturing is going the way of the dodo.

We all know government is broke, and we’re not that keen about paying more taxes so secondary and technical schools can expand (or relaunch) their manufacturing programs. So how about grabbing the skilled-labor issue by the horns, opening the shop floor, and exposing interested kids to the meat and potatoes of modern metal fabrication? It may or may not be possible, but at the very least, it’s a good question to ask.
Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314