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Actions to Bridge the Skilled Trades Gap

03 February, 2023

This week's #USAMfgHour chat talks about the skilled trades gap. See how some manufacturers are wading through challenges to attract new talent, lead manufacturing into the future, and promoting manufacturing employment.

Manufacturing has its share of peaks and valleys, but business continues to boom. "We've been jammed. We've been busy. We haven't stopped," Cindy Stumpo, founder of a custom building company, told Yahoo Finance. "I'm not seeing a slowdown." However, her company has had a hard time finding skilled workers. "We don't have enough good labor force, nor females, nor males." The skilled trades gap has been problematic for years, and Nick Rivers with Obsidian Manufacturing, a precision manufacturer, led a buzzing brainstorming session for this week's #USAMfgHour on Twitter.

?Out with the Old'

"When we say ?the old' we're referring to a comfort zone. Embracing ?the new' means to have a certain degree of adaptability which is needed in our ever-changing environment," Rivers said. "What do you think of when you hear the term "out with the old, in with the new"?"

Although it is a common thought, the group agrees there is some struggle in manufacturing to embrace new concepts, new technology, and other progressive tactics. How do you argue with the belief that "if it works, why change it?" or "That's the way we've always done it."

"We think there's a happy medium or sweet spot. The hardest thing to do is find that spot!" said Rivers.

"It's a bold and radical step of embracing something entirely different from what was," said Ruby Rusine of Social Success Marketing.

"We believe it means understanding that best practices and procedures are always changing and to be open-minded when it comes to making change," said Zero Surge, an electrical and electronics manufacturer. "Everyone is guilty of getting caught in a habit, but recognizing that there may be a better alternative is crucial."

"The old ways of doing things are about over. You can still do them, but you are falling behind rapidly," said Dan Bigger of Chenango Valley Technologies. "Everything is constantly evolving and you need to keep up."

"As time goes on business tactics change. It is important for a business to keep an open mind and maintain adaptability to be able to come out ahead in a competitive market," said Crescent Software. "To be able to remove ?the old' means, for me, to be willing to change when necessary."

"The word #Renovation comes to my mind," said Lermit Diaz of SCTools. "Sometimes we need to be variable, flexible, and light to change, and adapt to as quickly as possible to new realities."

"It makes me think of how I'm adapting to that particular situation," said Megan Murphy of SpaceGuard. "And how I'm ready to make the necessary changes to grow and learn."

"It sometimes means giving up an old way of doing something and people are usually skeptical of the new way working as well," said Julie of White Bear Plumbing.

"Change and innovation is good for the sustainability of a business but you don't have to change everything," said Nigel Packer of PelaTis. "Audit and research, analyze, and make informed decisions."

"This makes us think of the audience. Who is our audience? What kind of experience are they used to and what do they expect?" said Nicole Kangos Snaptron, makers of tactile metal dome switches.

Workers between the ages of 45 and 54 make up 23.6 percent of the U.S. labor force. In skilled trades, that number is a whopping 32.4 percent, nearly a third. How would you define the phrase "Skilled Trades Gap"?

"Vocational/skilled trades are suffering from years of pushing college degrees & downplaying jobs as welders, machinists, mechanics, tool & die makers, programmers," said Rivers. "The gap is in the ages of the workforce because of this suffering."

"Younger people are not looking at Mfg as an option," said Bigger. "Skilled trades are getting harder to find people to fill. The older, experienced workers have all of the skills and expertise. The younger generation does not, YET. We need to pass these skills forward."

"We'd define the skills gap or ?Skilled Trades Gap' as an oversight in education during the past two decades that caused people to shy away from manufacturing and skilled trades," said Mike Womack of NJMEP.org. "A misguided and outdated public perception of manufacturing created a massive gap in the nation's workforce."

"Not as many young people are going into trades because there are so many options ahead of them," said White Bear Plumbing. "Sadly, they aren't encouraged & taught the only way to make it is to go to college (not true). People of all ages that are willing to work are willing to be successful."

"It means a lot of companies will be screwed when they can't find workers to replace retirees in a few years," said Jennifer Wegman, a marketing professional.  

"The lack of younger people coming into the manufacturing trades is woefully low," said Packer. "Youngsters all want to be video stars and media students."

"The German school system has a good model for this," Kangos said. "They engage students early on to put them on track with working in manufacturing. This helps lessen that trade skills gap."

Drawing in the Young Crowd

Rivers then cited a staggering statistic that 70% of the labor force does not have a bachelor's degree. The older generations of skilled trade workers are retiring and dying, leaving the manufacturing industry with a void. What would be the advantage of teaching young people in your community about skilled trades?

Skilled trades "create a labor force within the community that in all probability will have a job for life and therefore creates a strong community that then enables entrepreneurs and others to build businesses that also support that community and so on and so on," said JD Allen of Cleveland Deburring.

"Show them the value of the opportunities that are out there for them," said Bigger. "Plastics is an industry that is over $230 billion a year worldwide, and you can work in any state or country. It is a transferable skill."

"We'd start breaking down the stigma associated with skilled trades," said Womack. "Educating young people about different career paths will encourage more people to take part in these fulfilling careers while at the same time bridging the #skillsgap."

"With the younger generation, there's a stigma around not having a degree," said Crescent Software. "But the truth is, trades are extremely valuable jobs, not to mention in higher demand. The advantage is that you're giving them more opportunities to become successful."

"We love giving tours of our facility to the next generation of the workforce," said Rico Equipment. The manufacturer shows off its machine shop and assembly floor to high school and career center students. "Internships also help give these future leaders a head start in manufacturing!"

"Everybody has a hidden talent," said Murphy. "I feel it would give them a chance to discover something new about themselves. And, who knows, they may LOVE it and want to pursue that avenue."

Rivers went on to tell the group that the U.S. is facing an unprecedented skilled labor shortage. According to the Depart of Labor, the U.S. economy had 7.6 million unfilled jobs, but only 6.5 million people were looking for work as of January 2019. He then questioned the group about their companies' percentage of employees that work in a skilled trade. With the varying industries, the answers had a range of a few to 100 percent.

"67%. With the right skills, we have room for more but that is the problem. The skills are not there in the workforce," Rivers said.

Rivers then challenged the group to actively dispel the myths of manufacturing careers and to highlight advanced technologies in manufacturing, which might attract a younger workforce. What has your company done to be progressive in filling the Skilled Trades Gap and/or promote awareness of it in your community?

"An apprenticeship program is in the development stage for our large manual surface grinders," Rivers said. "We work with so many companies feeling the effects of this gap. More must be done."

"We've been trying to see where we can be involved more with community/industry," said Christine Torres of Duralabel. "For example: responding with COVID-19 solutions for schools. Also, a safety presentation for kids. Things like that to draw attention to how we benefit the community as a manufacturer."

"Workforce development and community engagement are one of our three pillars in our organization," Womack said. "We developed the Pro-Action Education Network that attacks the workforce challenge from multiple angles through different programs. These challenges can't be ignored. We needed to develop solutions so our #NJ manufacturers can find new talent, up-skill current workers, and partake in registered without any guidance."

"We are actively involved in our community, especially local youth job fairs and the ?Made in Medina County' Expo," said Rico. "We can introduce ourselves to the future welders, machinists, assemblers & engineers at these great events."

"A local media outlet has covered skills/job gaps in our area and recognized the need and importance of manufacturing in our community and the careers associated with it," said Shannon Simpson of DuraTech Industries. "They created an opportunity to partner and promote manufacturing careers."

"We do career days for college vocational schools," said Bigger. "We participate in the NYS apprenticeship program and more. We do all that we can to spread the message to help."

"Before the pandemic, we've attended Career Day at the local high schools," said Murphy. "We've also participated in local job fairs."

Rivers concluded the chat by saying that the best take away is to keep an open mind to innovation with respect for traditional methods and a well-balanced mix of the new and old. "With the evolution of CNC machines in the manufacturing industry, do you see less of a need for manually operated machines?"

"Either way, you need to be able to do it," said Bigger. "If you are doing it manually that is a skill. To run an automated one, you still have to know how to do it and then be able to program the machine to do it. It is all education."

"I think it depends on the industry and the job being done," said Rebecca Hart of DSI Dynamatic. "In our company, we HAND ASSEMBLE all of our control boards right in our Wisconsin facility. We wouldn't want it any other way. We'll always use humans."

"CNC for us is helpful but not the end-all. It's changed where our skilled workers can best be utilized," said Michael Hicks of Portland Pattern

"Best skilled trades worker is a well-rounded one with both CNC and manual experience," said Rivers.

About #USAMfgHour

Anyone who champions U.S. manufacturing can join in on a new conversation each week on Twitter using the hashtag #USAMfgHour. The chat starts at 11 a.m. Pacific Standard Time/2 p.m. Eastern. Share positive blog posts, helpful articles, news, important information, accomplishments, events, and more with other manufacturers and supporters from throughout the country.

Are you interested in hosting a #USAMfgHour chat? Contact organizers @CVTPlastics, @DCSCinc, and @SocialSMktg.