#13 – Inside Our Industry – The Unnecessary Crisis in the American Workforce – Part 1

Posted on | Inside Our Industry

The shortage of skilled workers is a topic we have long been interested in. Millions of jobs, especially in manufacturing, are going unfilled due to this shortage. What can we, as an industry, do to encourage our young people to pursue manufacturing as a career? This is the first part of the article that focuses on the numbers and a bit of history. The second part, which will run next week, will offer some suggestions to bring more young people into the skilled trades.

The Unnecessary Crisis in the American Workforce – Part 1
Ken Rusk, AUG 28, 2020, IndustryWeek.com

Somehow the notion that a four-year college is for everyone has entered the national zeitgeist, but it’s just not true.

For several decades, the supply of skilled blue-collar workers has been shrinking, while demand rises. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, as of July 2017, a record 6.8 million jobs that require skilled laborers were left unfilled. Many of them are manufacturing jobs. The National Association of Manufacturers reports that a skills gap has caused about a half-million manufacturing jobs to remain open, and consulting company Deloitte predicts that by the end of this decade, as many as 2.4 million manufacturing jobs may go unfilled, putting $454 billion in production at risk.

While these numbers were reported before the coronavirus hit and unemployment has jumped to record levels in virtually all industries, scientists and economists agree that our economy will recover. When it does, for a successful reboot, we’re going to need skilled blue-collar and manufacturing workers more than ever.

Skilled workers learn and improve upon their abilities over time and use their hands for something more than just fingers on a keyboard. The description applies to independent contractors – carpenters, plumbers and electricians – but also to those on the factory floor – welders, machinists, machine operators, CAD draftspeople, and mechanical engineers.

There are numerous explanations for the shortage of workers in this segment of the economy. It starts with social pressures that encourage younger generations to avoid skilled trades in the first place. It’s the perpetuation of the ludicrous idea that the only path toward financial success includes a four-year college degree. That thinking ignores the fact that there are millions of young people who don’t have the inclination to spend their working life at a desk looking at a computer screen, or to emerge from schooling with staggering debt.

Somehow the notion that a four-year college is for everyone has entered the national zeitgeist, but it’s just not true. Having never graduated college myself and enjoying the American dream through a blue-collar life, and knowing many people in the same boat (some in yachts, actually), there is definitely another way – a way that doesn’t include staggering debt. Even before the pandemic, $1.5 trillion was owed by more than 44 million borrowers, and nearly 40% thought it would take more than a decade to pay off their student debt. The pandemic has obviously exacerbated this situation further.

The momentum against working with one’s hands begins early in a child’s life. Just look around your neighborhood and you’ll see one explanation right before your eyes. Instead of children playing outside, they’re inside using only thumbs on a game console. Remember when every back yard had a treehouse, built by the neighborhood kids, or a fort with sticks and stones? They had to actually pick up a tool and learn to use it.

But we can’t blame the Nintendos and the Xboxes of the world for this crisis in the American workforce. A more immediate concern is that many skilled tradespeople are aging out of the labor force. Estimates indicate that for every skilled person entering the workforce, there are five who retire. Many skilled trade companies are family-owned, some passed on from an earlier generation. But most of today’s youth aren’t nearly as interested in a blue-collar life that would keep that company in business, or even lead them toward a skilled manufacturing job.

Next week we will run the conclusion of this article that includes suggestions on  how to bring more young people into these skilled jobs.