We’ve heard it again and again – even as employment struggles to regain a foothold in the United States, manufacturers flail around, often unsuccessfully, in search of the right kind of workers. Indeed, we know that as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs may be floating around out there for “skilled” workers: CNC programmers, talented machinists, expert welders, what have you. Here in America there aren’t many jobs anymore that involve nothing but tightening bolts or clearing jams from machines. And there aren’t many people, apparently, who can do the jobs that need to be filled.
The article referenced above, along with this one from the Washington Post, have the decency to be a little blunt about the causes and effects of this situation. After all, there is a reason for it: we’re not really teaching people the skills they need to thrive in the modern manufacturing world. But the reason behind that reason, that’s where things get dicey. That’s when we get into Uncomfortable Truths. “We’re not teaching people the skills they need” is why American manufacturing is short on skilled labor, sure, but it’s also the equivalent of saying that having the sniffles is caused by your nose running. It recirculates the problem without describing the root causes, and certainly without articulating any sort of potential solution.
In the message, though, there is opportunity. We know that there are at least 600,000 jobs in U.S. manufacturing that are going or have gone unfilled due to a lack of people with the right skills. In the short term, we need to collectively figure out what the skills are and how to give those skills to people who need jobs. Personally, I think the answer lies in a massive collaboration between private industry and the nation’s community colleges – something that’s already going on to some degree.
Businesses often invest in local schools, providing money or equipment, because they know that investment will mature into a talent pool. Community colleges, meanwhile, have happily stepped into the void left by big universities (which increasingly don’t seem to want to teach skills like this) to educate this potential workforce, a job made easier by anything business can do help.
The hard part isn’t the collaboration; that’s already started and just needs to ramp up. The hard part may be for both education and business to swallow the painful realization that they may not see returns on this investment for a while, and even then they may not see it tangibly. After all, the out-of-work factory worker who goes back to community college to learn CNC programming so she can get work in tomorrow’s manufacturing still needs to feed her family; can’t necessarily afford much (or anything) in exchange for her training, and can’t be in school forever.
This is where the government has to step in, and many of the piecemeal “manufacturing boost” programs we’ve seen don’t go nearly far enough. Injecting money into the economy is a way to stimulate growth… in the short term. If the government could find a way to inject similar money into programs through which unemployed but eager to learn Americans can get cheap, fast training in the rainbow of new skills evidently required by today’s manufacturers, we could solve the unemployment problem and the labor shortage in one fell swoop.
Knowing the solution is different, though, than being able to easily implement it. Even if politics and stubbornness weren’t factors, there’s the simple fact that the United States is a little short on money right now. And the kind of money we’re talking about can’t be found between the couch cushions. But it could be found, if the right decisions – rather than the expedient or popular ones – can be made at the proper levels of governance. Make that happen and we’ve solved the problem… for now.
But putting 600,000 people to work would buy us quite a bit of breathing room to figure out the long term solutions.