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Forum: Is the Manufacturing Challenge Really a Skills Gap?

By Ideas Lab Staff May 17, 2013

The Aspen Institute hosted a forum on "Skills Gap in Manufacturing" to explore the hiring issues and solutions to strengthening the sector.

From President Obama to think tank executives, most people who are aware of challenges to the nation’s manufacturing sector identify the skills gap as the key issue to tackle.

But is the skills gap really the issue – or is it a gap in another area?

At a lunchtime discussion hosted this week by the Aspen Institute, panelists from several organizations explored answers to that question.

According to research by Deloitte, about 600,000 manufacturing jobs remain unfilled because employers cannot find skilled workers. The jobs most difficult to fill are those with the biggest impact on performance, said Craig Giffi, vice chairman and leader of Deloitte’s U.S. Consumer & Industrial Products practice. “The proverbial bar will continue to be set higher and higher,” he added.

So, yes, “we seem to have a skills gap,” Giffi told the panel’s audience. But other gaps also exist in training, education, perception, gender and policies, he said.

Wages, however, is one area of success in the manufacturing sector. According to Deloitte research, U.S. manufacturing jobs pay on average more than 8 percent higher than other jobs.

Closing gaps in skills, gender, training and other areas – in addition to growing the manufacturing sector – could produce more than 3.8 million jobs in manufacturing and other related industries, according to Giffi’s presentation of Deloitte research.

So what are the solutions to these gaps?

Theresa Maldonado, director of the  National Science Foundation‘s division of Engineering Education and Centers, said partnerships are key.

“We need to look at education more holistically,” she said, adding that training programs should focus on both fundamentals and advanced techniques.

Tim Welsh, senior vice president for University of Phoenix’s Industry Strategy Group, said addressing the gaps requires the commitment of both universities and employers.

“We can best help here if we treat ourselves as a member of an educational supply chain,” he said. On the employer side, he added, “the role is really around engagement with us.”

Ann Randazzo, executive director of the Center for Energy Workforce Development, provided examples of skills training from the utility industry. Some students participate in boot camps, for example, which provide eight weeks of hands-on training and certifications. Creating training programs for former Military members also is important, she noted.

Others across the manufacturing and education sectors have formed partnerships to train highly skilled workers, and even the federal government plans to launch three additional manufacturing institutes to encourage job growth and innovation. But Giffi pointed out during the Aspen Institute forum that the skills gap issue isn’t unique to the United States.

“We actually have a skills gap on a global basis,” he said. “The same conversation is taking place in countries around the world.”