12/17/2012 09:16 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Skills Gap Crisis: From Students to the Unemployed to Current Workers

It's difficult to determine what facts are the most disturbing about our nation's skills gap: The fact that U.S. students recently finished 25th in math and 17th in science in the ranking of 31 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The fact that 600,000 manufacturing jobs have gone unfilled during a prolonged period of high unemployment, because businesses cannot find workers with the basic math, science and technical competencies. A deficiency, of course, that dampens business growth.

"Our data says the skills gap is very real... across-the-board," Craig Giffi, Vice Chairman, U.S. Consumer & Industrial Products Leader, Deloitte LLP, said during a conference call about the problem Thursday.

The fact that U.S. employers find themselves wanting workers in areas, such as R&D and engineering, that have historically fueled innovation and economic competitiveness -- areas where we must excel to remain an economic leader in an intensely competitive global marketplace, according to the 2013 Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index. In fact, 67 percent of employers reported a serious or severe shortage of workers in key areas.

Or this: During the conference call, Deloitte reported that employers -- already strained trying to find the right employees for current vacancies -- have a bevy of issues with their current workers, too. Among them:

  • 52 percent -- Inadequate problem-solving skills
  • 43 percent -- lack of basic technical training
  • 40 percent -- Inadequate basic employability skills (things like showing up to work on time)
  • 36 percent -- Inadequate technology/computer skills
  • 30 percent -- Inadequate math skills
  • 29 percent -- Inadequate reading/writing/communications skills
  • 12 percent -- Inability to work in a team environment

It's enough to make one wonder: Have we workers really gotten this sloppy? If so, what does that mean for our future?

While somber about the apparent HR nightmare faced by manufacturers, Deloitte had many solutions in mind, starting with manufacturer-based training, mentorship programs and aggressive talent management. It also suggested building goodwill with workers and treating them as well as some companies treat their customers. (I know that workplace-improvement efforts like this have worked well for several Michigan-based manufacturers such as Seco Tools and Plex Systems, who've won a variety of awards for the efforts.)

"This is a problem that won't solve itself," said Marcus Johnson, Senior Manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP.

The Boston Consulting Group, which downplays the current state of the manufacturing workforce shortage, also proposes manufacturers pay a bit more.

"Investment in training and skills development needs to be stepped up, but there's little reason to believe that the U.S. cannot remain on track for a manufacturing renaissance by 2020." said Harold L. Sirkin, a BCG senior partner at BCG and coauthor of the research.

Deloitte also waived a carrot at those interested in the bait. Such as this: If you take the current 600,000 manufacturing vacancies in the U.S. and add in another 500,000 new manufacturing jobs from growth plus the 2.75 million in spinoff jobs (each manufacturing job equals 2.5 jobs), you get 3.85 million new jobs. That would help to drive down the U.S. unemployment rate and give a nice boost to the economy.

That is, of course, if you can fill the jobs in the first place.

This post was previously published on Manufacturing Engineering Media.