THE BLOG

Manufacturing: A Pathway to Prosperity

07/24/2013 11:53 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2013

Whether it's the Krups you use for your morning coffee, the garage door you close with the touch of a button, or the computer you log onto that signifies your day has begun -nearly everything you use in your job and life has the stamp of a manufacturer on it.

In fact, according to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), in 2012, U.S. manufacturers contributed $1.87 trillion to the economy, up from $1.73 trillion the year before-- 11.9 percent of this country's total GDP. According to Nam, manufacturing supports an estimated 17.2 million jobs in the U.S. - about one in six private sector jobs, tying nearly 12 million (or 9 percent) of the American workforce directly to manufacturing.

Yet, during one of the most difficult economic periods in U.S. history, there has been an enormous skills gap in the manufacturing industry. In a recent Skills Gap Study developed by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, 67 percent of respondents reported a moderate to severe shortage of available qualified workers and 56 percent anticipated the shortage to grow worse in the next three to five years. In real numbers, this means that as many as 600,000 jobs in manufacturing are going unfilled.

Why, then, aren't people clamoring to earn the certificates and degrees for skilled jobs in manufacturing and racing toward employment in this field?

Here's a definition of a word I'd like to share: "stigma - a mark of disgrace or infamy, a stain or reproach, as on one's reputation." Whether something is based on fact or fiction, continued repetition and rumor can alter a person's perception. After a time, this perception can morph into "reality." As the president of a large and respected community college, I can attest that community colleges must continually fight the perception that we are a second-choice institution for higher education -- despite the fact our graduates leave us with the skills and talents required for success in earning a bachelor's degree or moving directly into the workplace (including excellent training in manufacturing technology), minus the debt accumulated by attendance at most four-year schools.

I believe a similar stigma persists with manufacturing. The main reason for the ongoing skills gap in this industry stems, at least in part, from outdated ideas that these jobs are dead end, unpleasant or low-paying. It's this idea and the widely-reported outsourcing of manufacturing jobs that have caused people to look to other industries for employment. That's truly unfortunate. Since December 2009, manufacturers in this country have increased their payrolls by almost 500,000 workers - and the perks are impressive. According to the report, A Growth Agenda: Four Goals for a Manufacturing Resurgence in America, recently released by NAM, the average compensation for manufacturing employees is 19 percent higher than workers in non-manufacturing industries - and these workers receive more generous benefits than other working Americans.

So what is the answer? President Obama recently presented a Plan to Make America a Magnet for Jobs by Investing in Manufacturing that coincides with his administration's announcement last year to support the work of community colleges with $500 million in grants for development and expansion of innovative training programs as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in 2009.

This type of support for both manufacturing and community colleges is certainly warranted and appreciated. But the fact remains that the stigmas attached to both the industry and institutions seem to remain an uphill battle. While tax breaks, incentives for investment in U.S. companies and opening new markets for American exports might assist in attracting more skilled workers to seek manufacturing jobs, it's also up to the industry and the community colleges that train these individuals to seek change through continued repetition about the viability of both these jobs and institutions. We must repeat the facts again and again...until the fiction loses its strength and only the facts remain.