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Invest in Advanced Manufacturing -- Building the Right Skills

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In a now-famous conversation, President Obama pressed Steve Jobs on the deportation of American manufacturing jobs at a meeting of Silicon Valley minds in 2011. Jobs unapologetically told the president that those jobs were gone. But, Jobs noted, the U.S. might be able to create new skilled manufacturing jobs, but only if it invested in educating the next generation of engineers.

And there's the rub. Too many American workers lack the specialized skills needed to secure a job, but they can't gain those skills without a job. This catch-22 has enveloped American employers and job seekers. Even though the unemployment rate stood at 7.8 percent in September, about 600,000 jobs remain unfilled "due to a lack of qualified candidates," according to a Deloitte study. The demand for skilled workers has now exceeded the number of workers with desired skills, creating what's called structural unemployment.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in manufacturing, where workers gain skills primarily on the job. Fifty-six percent of manufacturers say the shortage of available workers will worsen in the next three to five years. So what can employers do to find the talent they need? If manufacturers are willing to be proactive in developing their workforce, one of the best solutions is an apprenticeship.

Americans are probably most familiar with apprenticeships for carpenters, electricians, metalsmiths, and other trades. But abroad, apprenticeships exist for skilled jobs in a variety of fields, including high-tech manufacturing. These apprenticeships close the loop on structural unemployment by recruiting inexperienced workers -- sometimes when they're as young as 15 -- to a job in which they learn the skills they'll need for a successful long-term career.

As baby boomers reach retirement age, a number of highly skilled workers will step out of the factory for good, taking their specialized knowledge and decades of experience with them. Apprenticeships make teachers out of these seasoned professionals to ensure their skills and knowledge are engrained in the next generation of workers.

That generation has a lot to offer manufacturers besides the specialized skills prized in today's manufacturing industry. Consider veterans, for example. The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans remains high, at 9.7 percent in September. But a number of companies have already announced that they'll train veterans to gain high-tech manufacturing skills. While veterans might not have the exact skills manufacturers are looking for, they make excellent apprentices. They bring maturity, the ability to work well with others, and sometimes even technical training.

Some manufacturers might balk at taking so much responsibility for educating the workforce. But apprenticeships allow manufacturers to impart the skills they need, molding new recruits into ideal employees while filling vital positions to keep up production. In addition, since many factories are the lifeblood of small towns, investing in the future of a workforce is an investment in local communities as well that will sustain the plants in the future.

At SCHOTT's Duryea, Pa. glass manufacturing plant, we've implemented such an apprenticeship program. Here's how we did it and how other manufacturers can implement their own apprenticeship programs that will preserve specialized knowledge, maintain workforce capabilities, and develop a strong foundation for enhancing competitive advantages:

  1. Perform a needs analysis. What are the most crucial areas of your workforce that you need to fill? What skills do you need to impart in your apprentices to have a successful workforce moving forward? Define skills areas for training and determine how recruits will gain these skills. Look at a variety of potential sources, including in-house mentorships, local colleges and trade schools, or other resources.
  2. Choose a training team. Assemble a mix of production workers and supervisors to guide apprentices through their development. This team shouldn't necessarily include the oldest or most experienced employees. The best employees for the role will buy into the process, act as resources, and support the apprentices in their progress.
  3. Select apprentices carefully. Unlike other potential employees, apprentices need not have extensive experience. More important is that a candidate is motivated and eager, wants to make a difference, and is looking for a career instead of just another job. We looked for and found talent in veterans, applicants with a military background, because they often demonstrate a higher level of maturity and discipline. Also seek out internal recommendations from current employees -- their family and friends might already have a strong connection to the company.
  4. Blend experiential and theoretical learning. The idea of dividing an employee's time between the classroom and the plant is new to many companies, but ultimately results in well-rounded workers that understand the importance and purpose of the tasks they complete. The theory apprentices learn in the classroom complements the hands-on work they take up in the factory and vice-versa. If local colleges and career tech centers don't have the right classes to support your apprentices, look for online courses to fill the gap.

Apprenticeship programs can directly contribute to America's manufacturing might, provide good jobs to unemployed veterans, and serve as a process of passing on specialized knowledge. Instead of waiting for the government to support education for new engineers, American business can take the reins and lead a new resurgence of advanced American manufacturing.