According to the U.S. Department of Labor, our economy willneed 41,700 more cement masons, 114,700 more electricians, and 218,200 morecarpenters by 2022. More than half of all tradesmen are presently over age 45. Thosefacts don’t reflect the growing shortage of experienced production workersneeded in our industry. Clearly the skills gap alreadyemerging in the United States is set to worsen if no action is taken.


The late Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker believedthat 70 percent of the total capital of the U.S. is found in the combined skillsof its people. Given the eroding base of skills, our ability to create a highgrowth economy and a rising standard of living is at risk.  


What must the U.S. do to reverse this trend? The shortanswer is education. The real question is how best to deliver an education thatenables a person to earn a good living.


Let’s look at some ways to address this challenge.


Basic education

Without question every young student should have theopportunity to earn a certified skill before graduating from high school. Todaymost high schools concentrate on preparing their graduates for highereducation. Many districts have shuttered their vocational education programs. Yetdata shows that nearly half of all college graduates are in jobs that do notrequire a bachelor’s degree while job openings for tradesmen and productionworkers go unfilled. Belatedly we have recognized that working in a trade or inmanufacturing requires smarts that qualify an individual for those positions.  


Jobs requiring what economists call middle skills will make up half of future U.S. jobs. Educators mustcoordinate with local businesses to design high school curricula that atminimum provide an entry ramp to a career in manufacturing or a trade. Businessesmust be willing to provide advice on skills in current demand and to loan personnelwho can teach the relevant subject matter.  And don’t forget, such curricula must firstraise the performance of our students in basic reading, writing, and arithmetic,then move on to problem solving, teamwork, and other relevant skills.


We absolutely must demand more from our secondary schools.


Workplace training

Continued formal training in the workplace builds on highschool education and subsequent job experience. Research has identified thatcompanies that offer continuous training and advancement opportunities attractsuperior workers and have a higher retention rate. On-the-job training canyield a competitive advantage.


Such training can follow many models. Dental instrumentmanufacturer Hu-Friedy is trying a unique plan: A $600,000 plunge into thecreation of a core team of experts who will run their operations. To ensure theexistence of specialized metallurgical and metalworking skills within itsstaff, the company is paying four employees to work full time for two years todevelop the kind of knowledge that drives problem solving and creativity. Theprogram combines classroom lectures with hands-on shop floor work.


Their goal is to leverage and expand the team that has thecomplete knowledge of instrument production and are responsible fornext-generation methods and products. Hu-Friedy aims to glean the experiencesof its aging workforce so that knowledge can be multiplied across the youngeremployers and utilized to increase efficiency. So far their program is helpingretain jobs in their U.S. plant.


Apprentice programs


Apprenticeships are a proven solution to the skills gap.


Blum, the well-known cabinet hardware manufacturer, hasoperated a full-scale apprentice program for 20 years at its Charlotte, NorthCarolina, facility. The goals are to train their own workforce and increasetheir overall efficiency. Called Apprenticeship2000, their program mirrors many of the attributes found in traditionaltraining programs in its home country of Austria.


The curriculum covers 8,000 hours of classroom and hands-ontraining over four years with 6,400 of that time spent at Blum. Entrants begintheir training as high school seniors by spending four hours per day completingtheir diplomas and four hours at Blum’s training facilities. Upon graduationthe student becomes a full-time paid apprentice working at Blum four days perweek and studying at a local community college for one day and one evening eachweek. During that period each student is assigned a mentor who monitorsprogress and connects classroom learning to the plant floor. The performance ofall apprentices is evaluated monthly. Based on their progress, they canincrease their pay. At the successful completion of the four-year program, theapprentice receives an Associate of Applied Science degree from the communitycollege and a Journeyman’s Certificate from the State of North Carolina. Moreimportantly, every graduate is guaranteed a job. Blum has retained about 80percent of its apprentice program graduates and has 50 former apprentices ontheir current payroll.


The program that Blum and another partner company created in1995 has expanded to eight participating companies in the Charlotte area.


While such a comprehensive program does not come cheap, Blumis supporting its growth with a steady stream of workers specifically trainedin skills that the company requires. Their apprentices hit the ground ready todesign and operate specialized hardware-making machinery. Company executivesare certain the ROI on their investment in the program is high.


In spite of successes like Blum’s, formal apprenticeprograms have declined about 40 percent in the ten years since 2003. Insteadcompanies are relying tax dollar-supported training programs to supply theneeded workers.


Bottom Line: Ifyou want the best people working at your company, actively lobby to make yourlocal schools’ and community colleges’ offerings more relevant to your needs.Create your own pipeline like Blum. And train, train, train your workforce likeHi-Friedy. Your human resources are indeed your most important asset…

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