04/15/2014 08:30 am ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

Dealing With The Skills Gap

There is no question that a shortage of skilled labor -- people qualified to work in modern manufacturing -- is a major problem for most U.S. manufacturers. Our schools simply do not prepare enough young people for work in industry and the government's training programs are broken.

Our continuing failure to devise and operate a coherent nationwide training program to help prepare young people for careers in modern manufacturing is a national disgrace, and one with potentially severe repercussions.

But manufacturing is finding its own way, and the diversity of efforts is a testimony to American ingenuity. For example, William Wright runs a small manufacturer of upscale lawnmowers in Frederick, Maryland, where his 170 employees make 600-800 mowers a month. To fill his need for welders, he takes young people with little experience and positive attitudes and trains them to do the work precisely as he wants it done. It is complex work that must be done the Wright way, and his system is working just fine. The company expects to turn $40 million this year.

The town of West Point, Mississippi, won a new $300 plant to be built by the Yokohama Tire Corporation -- beating out more than 2000 other towns competing for it -- because the state provided $4 million to recruit and train employees, and $7.5 million toward construction of an on-site training facility. Yokohama plans to start with 500 jobs and could employ up to 2000.

Those are two excellent examples of how manufacturing is coping with the skills gap -- one a small company taking charge of its own future and the other a state eager for development that recognizes worker skills as its most powerful enticement.

Even so, the prospect of hiring inexperienced young people for complex manufacturing work is daunting for most manufacturers, large and small. It isn't that our young people are not smart, but they have had little exposure to manufacturing and few of them have solid backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math -- the so-called STEM curriculum.

Local schools once provided vocational training for young people interested in industrial careers, but we let it get away from us. Then again, that offers an opportunity in that we don't have to overcome an entrenched industrial arts bureaucracy. We can work from scratch developing curricula for our K-12 schools that emphasizes STEM subjects, and at the same time develop outreach programs to introduce bright young people to the abundant opportunities of modern manufacturing. I envision a nationwide program of internships for young people interested in manufacturing possibly supported by tax subsidies or private grants.

This isn't rocket science. We need a prototype project that can be widely replicated. Manufacturers should take the lead to make sure the project trains young people for real world manufacturing jobs. President Obama's Youth CareerConnect initiative to train students for "in-demand jobs of the future" is a good place to start.


Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. You may quote from this with attribution. Let me know if you would like to speak with Jerry. April 2014