Pages Navigation Menu

For today's engineer



Manufacturers in the United States have been facing some significant challenges finding qualified machine operators. Increasing automation reduces the total number of human workers needed to operate a machine, but increases the skills needed by the operators. Ideally, increased productivity leads to greater opportunities and eventually a larger human workforce.

But the Americans who know how to run machinery are heading toward retirement age. The average skilled factory worker is now in his 50s. Younger workers aren’t learning either the shop skills nor the math and engineering they need to work in a factory, and they aren’t being steered into manufacturing as a career choice.

The Skills Gap is here.

ManPower Group says 36% of employers say they have trouble finding people to fill their jobs openings.

There’s a lot of finger pointing. Is the government at fault for failing to implement economic policies that support manufacturing? Are educators in the wrong for focusing on liberal arts rather than vocational training? Should manufacturers be blamed for offshoring so many jobs that manufacturing jobs stopped looking like a solid career move? Are new grads unwilling to work hard? Maybe it’s the fault of overly indulgent parents or trophies given for participation.

Beyond the philosophical and political arguments, there’s a serious conversation about how much manufacturers have brought this on themselves.

Peter Cappelli, the director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said in a 2014 paper that manufacturers just have to step up and provide training. If we’re not willing to train workers, he figures, we have no right to complain that our workers are untrained. We don’t have apprenticeship programs as many European countries do, and some say we’re not willing to pay enough to draw qualified workers.

If the starting wage for a machine operator is the same as the starting wage for a fast food worker, the motivation for enrolling in (and paying for) technical training programs won’t be high… especially if manufacturing companies aren’t doing such a great job at showing the career path those entry-level workers have available to them as they gain more skill and experience.

Successful examples of training initiatives jointly supported by industry, schools, and the government show a plausible path out of the skills gap, but manufacturers may have to take the first step to broaden these initiatives. We may have to do some self-examination… and put our money where our mouth is.