High school seniors across America are anxiously awaiting word from college admissions offices in the next few weeks. Most would probably be surprised to learn that less than one third of college students in the U.S. graduate in 4-6 years. The other two-thirds drop out for various reasons. So the odds are that two out of three high school students now worrying about getting into college might be headed in the wrong direction.
Clearly, there is a bias among students, parents and educators to get a college degree in order to pursue a professional, white-collar job. Yet the dropout rate tells us that attending a four-year college is not always the right choice.
For students who would consider a two-year technical school instead, a broad range of high-paying and challenging jobs awaits them in modern manufacturing. From robotics technicians who use computers to design robots that can spray paint cars or explore outer space to mechanical draftspersons who make designs for products like new jets to environmental engineering technicians who modify, test and operate equipment to protect the environment, there are plenty of career opportunities for students with a two-year associate’s degree.
It may seem counterintuitive at a time of continuing layoff announcements, but U.S. manufacturers are having a tough time finding skilled workers. A recent survey by the National Association of Manufacturers and Deloitte Consulting exposed a widening gap between the supply of skilled workers in America and the growing technical demands of the high-tech manufacturing workplace. The skills shortages are having a widespread impact on the ability of manufacturers to achieve production levels, increase productivity and meet customer demands.
The pain is most acute on the front line, where 90 percent of manufacturers are experiencing a shortage of qualified skilled production employees including machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors and technicians. These are challenging jobs with high wages and good benefits. Front-line positions require advanced technical skills beyond those taught in high school, along with the ability to interact with computer systems, work in a team and solve problems.
The shortage of U.S. manufacturing workers will only get worse as the baby boomers retire from the workplace with no generation of skilled employees in the pipeline to replace them. If current trends continue, experts estimate that the United States will face a shortage of roughly 13 million qualified employees by 2020.
Our nation’s inability to produce enough skilled manufacturing workers is in part a cultural and perception problem. Students don’t think manufacturing has sex appeal and a vibrant future. Young people _ along with their parents and educators _ have an outdated image of manufacturing today. They still think of manufacturing as it existed 50 years ago _ repetitive, assembly-line work. Most people do not realize that cutting-edge technology has transformed manufacturing in ways that are hard to imagine if you haven’t visited a factory lately.
Make no mistake about it, manufacturing remains a vibrant sector of the U.S. economy _ employing more than 14 million people and growing at a rate faster than the economy as a whole. U.S. manufacturing output is at an all-time high. By itself, U.S. manufacturing would be the eighth largest economy in the world and is larger than the following sectors combined: real estate, finance and insurance, business services, wholesale and retail trade, transportation, agriculture, mining, utilities and construction.
Manufacturers must do a better job telling students, parents and career counselors about the new reality of manufacturing: high-paying, interesting jobs in technologically sophisticated environments. Nearly 75 percent of manufacturers surveyed believe that a high performance workforce is the most important driver of future business success. Clearly, more training is needed; we recommend that employers spend roughly 3 percent of payroll to train current workers if they want to stay ahead in today’s rapidly changing economy. But manufacturers also need to improve their image if they want to attract new highly-skilled workers.
One bright ray of hope is the recent success in Kansas City, Mo., where the manufacturing careers and economic development campaign “Dream It. Do It.” — launched just one year ago _ has already raised young people’s enrollment in manufacturing-related courses at a local technical college by 35 percent and helped the area acquire a $15 million federal workforce development grant. Interest in this successful public-private partnership to build the local manufacturing talent pool is huge, with five new regions across America poised to launch “Dream It. Do It.” this year. By spreading this innovative campaign around the country, we can help point high school seniors in the right direction for a rewarding career and also fill local pipelines with well-trained, highly skilled workers.
(Jerry Jasinowski is president of The Manufacturing Institute, the research and education arm of the National Association of Manufacturers. Visit www.dreamit-doit.com.)