Reimagining a Tried and True Strategy to Strengthen the Fabric of American Manufacturing

Published oct. 02, 2017

This blog was originally featured in IndustryWeek as part of Manufacturing Day

The fact that U.S. manufacturers are continuing to produce while employing fewer people shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the impact this trend is having on the skills needed to make it in the new manufacturing workforce just might. Decades of downsizing has helped businesses hone in on a root cause of the on-going talent search issue: That the worker shortage alone is not the problem. The challenge is locating recruits that have advanced skills required for contemporary manufacturing.

Contemporary manufacturing moves faster, is more efficient, and more complex than yesterday’s production. The workplace has evolved from assembly lines, hand tools and repetitive tasks into modern equipment designed, programmed, operated and maintained by skillful workers. Shop floors are labs with sophisticated technology that engage the entire worker: hands and mind. Shop talk involves critical reasoning, logical thinking, statistics, and team work. Today’s CNC Machinist needs to assess 35 unique tools, choose the best one, know material properties and use a computer to devise programs and run simulations. Indeed, modern technology is only as good as the worker behind it.

American manufacturers are trying to adapt to global changes while rethinking their workforce needs and reimagining how they can build a talent pipeline for both the short and long term. This shift has created real challenges for the 251,000+ manufacturing firms in America trying to fill the nearly 3.5 million jobs that will be needed in the next 10 years according to a 2015 report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. While the need for highly trained workers is clear, the process for developing skillful employees is less so.

Compounding these challenges, according to 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, while 3 out of 4 manufacturers in the United States employ fewer than 20 people, the largest 1.5% of firms employ more than 55% of the total manufacturing workforce. With such diverse needs, it’s clear that there’s no one-size fits all remedy to fix the manufacturing talent pipeline.

But even as manufacturing trends decidedly “new school” with employees just as likely to be using iPads as arc welders, one “old school” training approach — apprenticeship — is providing the flexibility the industry needs and delivering real results for people like Pedro Driscoll.

Pedro is part of a new Industrial Manufacturing Technician (IMT) apprenticeship program with BERMO, Inc., in Minneapolis. The 18-month program trains frontline manufacturing workers to set up, operate, monitor, and control production equipment. It’s indicative of the changing nature of the work, and the changing nature of the skills needed to succeed in today’s advanced manufacturing workforce.

While the program was initially designed for apprentices with little manufacturing experience, Pedro has been working for more than two decades as an extruder operator, spot welder, and press operator. What he was missing, that the IMT provided, was a chance to learn about the big picture and earn the certifications he needs to eventually join that 32% of manufacturing workers in management and professional jobs.

For Hayes, a supplier of brake components for everything from mountain bikes to military spec off-road vehicles, participating in an apprenticeship program helped them upskill their current workforce to meet changing industry needs, while also creating a new pipeline to attract a younger, more diverse cohort of employees it needs to meet its growth targets as it reaches into new markets.

That’s because apprenticeship — with its mix of a on the job training and related technical instruction — is a proven model that allows employers to “grow their own” workers, while helping employees learn the skills to be successful on the job. Companies that use apprenticeship like Hayes report higher productivity, retention rates, and a substantial return on investment.

At Jobs for the Future, we have decades of experience working with companies, industry associations, the workforce system, non-profit organizations, and training providers applying the power of apprenticeship to solve their changing workforce needs. Most recently, JFF was awarded a contract from the U.S. Department of Labor to customize advanced manufacturing apprenticeship programs for businesses and workforce organizations at no cost. Our contract has started more than 30 apprenticeship programs for 700+ apprentices – many for new hires but many also providing career advancement for incumbent workers. We also have letters of commitment from 25 employers looking to register over 4,000 apprentices.

The manufacturing jobs being created today are fundamentally different than the jobs that have been lost over the past few decades. To help meet that challenge and harness momentum around expanding apprenticeship in America, JFF is establishing the Center for Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning as a one-stop-shop for employers, workforce organizations, and others interested in applying these proven models to their specific needs.

The Center will be featured at Celebrate Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning on November 9. The event will celebrate the history and boost the momentum of the expanding movement to support apprenticeship and other forms of work-based learning as mainstream workforce development and talent solutions for American businesses.

Manufacturing is too much a part of our national workforce identity and too big a piece of the fabric of our communities to miss this opportunity.