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A perennial concern in the U.S. electronics manufacturing industry is the lack of skilled talent in many parts of the country. According to a recent IPC member survey, most companies have a hard time recruiting qualified production workers, engineers, and other technical professionals.
In Washington, D.C. this week, the Manufacturing Institute hosted a symposium called Manufacturing Workforce 4.0, which focused on the skills gap facing the advanced manufacturing sector and ways the public and private sector can tackle the issue.
Wes Bush, the chairman, CEO, and president of Northrop Grumman, said the core challenges are the same whether a company has 50,000 employees or just 50, but every company has unique strengths and resources to apply to the solution.
Among the challenges cited by a variety of speakers were:
- A perception that manufacturing jobs are low-skilled, low-paid, dirty, and disrespected, when in fact the reality is quite different in today’s advanced manufacturing facilities;
- The role of influencers such as parents, teachers, and school counselors who may steer youth away from manufacturing jobs and toward four-year college degrees;
- Appealing to members of the millennial generation, who have had the least exposure to today’s manufacturing realities but are most needed to offset the retirements of baby boomers;
- The constant challenge of retaining good employees;
- The brain drain that occurs when foreign-born students attend U.S. schools but cannot get visas or green cards to stay in the United States and are forced to return to their home countries; and
- Measures of performance of local public schools, which may be rated more highly for sending graduates to college than to technical schools and apprenticeships.
Conference participants generally agreed that all stakeholders must play a more active role, including businesses; universities and school systems; and government at all levels. And lasting change require more than public policy changes; companies can accomplish a great deal by taking a hands-on approach in their own spheres of influence.
Some of the solutions that were discussed were:
- To take on the skills gap directly. Companies can build partnerships between themselves and local educational institutions. For example, some companies offer “employee teach” sessions during evening and weekend hours – either at the company facility or in a local educational institution – where existing employees can share their knowledge and prospective employees can learn about a company and the skills required to work there.
- Some companies work with local faculty to develop the curriculum to teach needed skills, and some companies bring local teachers into their manufacturing facilities to help them refresh their knowledge during the summer months.
- Or take a look at your soon-to-be retirees, and think about structured ways they can pass along the knowledge they have accumulated over years on the job. This is a great way to build out an internship or apprenticeship program.
In all of these cases, the goal is to build relationships in the local community and engage educators and the community in building up locally needed skills.
To attack the problem of negative perceptions, companies can help educate local parents, teachers, and counselors that today’s manufacturing jobs offer challenging, rewarding, clean work, in a variety of creative and cutting-edge endeavors, with above average pay and benefits. Moreover, by taking advantage of the growing array of paid training and apprenticeship programs, students can embark on a promising career free of college debt.
Companies also can foster a two-way dialogue by asking their younger employees to act as ambassadors to other millennials in the community. Hiring managers can make great ambassadors to parents and school faculty.
Companies also can offer presentations and demonstrations inside the classroom, by offering in-person and virtual plant tours, and by engaging actively on social media platforms.
The annual observance of Manufacturing Day (MFG DAY), which takes place this year on October 6, offers a special opportunity to engage your local community on the skills gap. Supported by a group of industry sponsors including IPC, MFG DAY encourages companies to open their doors to show the public what manufacturing really is. Last year, more than 400,000 people attended 1,700 events across the country, and we are looking to make a bigger impact this year.
Also, don’t forget that IPC is your resource and a principal provider of education and training opportunities for the electronics industry. Specifically, we offer dozens of courses per year that train workers on industry standards, and we established IPC EDGE, an online education and training platform, to take those courses even further out into the world. For more information about IPC and our own workforce development initiative, visit edge.ipc.org.
Finally, as part of its government relations program, IPC advocates for ambitious public policies to address the skills gap. For example, IPC supports the bipartisan Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, H.R. 2353, which is making its way through Congress and would provide federal support for career education programs. We are also engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the Trump administration to explore how we can support their apprenticeship and workforce development initiatives.
We are interested in learning what your company is doing to address the skills gap. Just think: What would you do if you could partner with others and utilize IPC's resources? Please let us know, and we’ll do our best to support and help publicize your efforts.