In spite of a recession of epic and global proportions, the manufacturing skills deficit continues to be a problem. We have discussed some of the reasons for this in the past, but the key cause of the problem is twofold: the retirement of baby boomers and the college-only tracking of students.

The problem with the first factor is that boomers will be retiring from now until about 2030. The recession might have absorbed some of these early retirees, but what will we do when business is going well and the largest part of our workforce continues to retire? Do you have a plan? Do you have people in the pipeline, training to take the place of these older stalwarts? We can’t wait until they leave to begin thinking about it.

A number of programs exist to connect students to manufacturing. Some involve younger children – middle and high schoolers – while others connect universities with industrial partners. One such program is a partnership between Western Kentucky University (WKU) and Logan Aluminum. Back in February, Logan Aluminum donated $300,000 to create the Logan Aluminum Industrial Partnership Program and to fund an endowment for the Logan Aluminum Student Fellowships. The program will provide students at WKU’s Department of Engineering with access to industry-based projects, summer work, special assignments and a cooperative-education program.

More and more companies are taking the same approach. Advanced Technology Services Inc. (ATS) of Peoria, Ill., helps pay for 40-week community-college training programs, and it funds scholarships for engineering students at universities. Two ATS managers spend most of their time with high schools, attending career days, conducting plant tours and meeting with guidance counselors.

A recent WSJ article highlighted some of the issues challenging manufacturers in their search for qualified people. It said that “the U.S. education system isn’t turning out enough people with the math and science skills needed to operate and repair sophisticated computer-controlled factory equipment, jobs that often pay $50,000 to $80,000 a year, plus benefits.” A spokesman for Lehigh Heavy Forge said that he needs people who understand the intricacies of $1 million lathes and other metal-shaping equipment.

Because the school systems are not doing it, some companies have developed their own apprenticeship programs to train people for their industry-specific needs. An example is the Apprenticeship 2000 program started by a North Carolina manufacturer, Blum Inc. In the program, apprentices receive 8,000 hours of training in manufacturing skills – classroom as well as hands-on. A dedicated lab with $1.8 million in training equipment is utilized. Graduates receive an associate’s degree in manufacturing technology and a journeyman certification from the North Carolina Department of Labor. They also earn a paycheck while they learn. Training includes career paths for tool and die makers, electronics technicians, CNC machinists, machine technicians, mold/plastics technicians and welding fabricators. Other local companies, such as Timken and Siemens, are also participating in the program.

The bottom line is that your company will be faced with this issue sooner or later. What can you do now to prepare yourself? How can you help students to see that manufacturing offers a viable career path? IH