The beginning of the school year is inevitably a time to consider education and its application to us individually and as an industry. This has probably never been so personally poignant as this year because my son went off to college for the first time.

College, of course, is one of the educational options available to our high-school graduates. Clearly, there is currently a shortage in many types of engineering fields. Current trends indicate that the number of engineering bachelor degrees awarded has declined slightly every year for the past four or five. This may continue before turning around slightly in a couple of years. As these are overall statistics, some engineering degrees may be suffering more than others.

One place this is beginning to have a significant impact is in the U.S. defense industry. An example is the Air Force. As a result of the difficulty in recruiting and retaining top engineers, in addition to budget cuts and the demands of war, the number of civilian and uniformed engineers on the Air Force’s staff is down by 35-40% over the last 14 years. This time frame also agrees with the mid-‘90s low point in the engineering-graduate rate.

Another reason for the decreasing number of engineers in the Air Force and fields like steelmaking and other high-temperature thermal processing areas is the increasing number of engineers choosing positions in “non-engineering” disciplines. Ten to 20 years ago, engineers were entering work in a more limited number of fields such as automotive, aerospace and defense. Additionally, there were a greater number of engineers graduating two decades ago. Today, fewer engineering graduates have a broader range of jobs available to them. Needless to say, engineering shortages result.

In our industry, shortages continue to exist in the skilled-labor area. We discussed this back in our January 2007 editorial, and the issue continues to be a potential long-term problem. Part of the reason for this is that our culture says that college is the only or best way to go. Many companies have initiated training programs for skilled laborers because workers do not have the skill sets necessary to step into these jobs. One example of this is a program run by United States Steel at their Mon Valley Works. A training facility has been established, and hourly workers participate in a five-week training session.

Smaller companies are at a disadvantage because they don’t have the ability to establish costly training programs. Business councils have been formed to try to help these companies, and one such council in Western Pennsylvania represents 550 companies. They indicate that there is a need for “at least a few thousand trained workers at these manufacturers in western and central Pa.” Unfortunately, public vocational-technical schools are having difficulty providing students with the necessary skill sets because the computerized machinery used by many manufacturers is too expensive and diverse for these schools to acquire.

Boeing is an example of another company in our industry that is setting up in-house training. They have recruited retirees to mentor new machinists in their Washington State facilities. Boeing has added more than 7,000 machinists and engineers in the last 18 months, and before a new machinist ever touches a Boeing jet, he or she undergoes a minimum of 14 weeks of training. Do the math. That’s a lot of training hours!

Another industry in our field in need of skilled labor is shipbuilding. The shipbuilders in the Gulf South currently have enough work to fill more than 3,700 open jobs. The Gulf States Shipbuilders Consortium (GSSC) has been working with technical colleges in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi to conduct a series of six-week boot camps. Each class trains 10-15 students to move into shipyard jobs where there is the greatest need. GSSC indicates that welders, shipfitters, riggers, machinists and carpenters make between $42,000 and $45,000 annually.

Whether it’s Boeing, USS, the shipyards or thousands of other manufacturing companies around the country, the need is greater than ever for workers with a trained skill. Many of these jobs require an associate degree and/or additional training. The bottom line is that these workers are trained sooner than four-year graduates, are having an easier time finding work and often earn more money.

If you know someone who is not sure they want to go to college, let them know of the opportunities for skilled workers in manufacturing. They will thank you, and our industry will become just a little stronger one person at a time. IH