Another school year begins, and the issue of unskilled workers continues to plague our manufacturing base. We have covered this basic topic several times, but I’m certain many of our readers are still struggling with finding qualified workers in technology fields. Let’s discuss the issues we are experiencing in this country and look at some suggestions for how to solve this perennial problem.

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2018 there will be a record 1.2 million unfilled jobs in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) indicates that 600,000 jobs are currently unfilled due to a lack of skilled workers. Unfortunately, it takes twice as long to hire someone to fill an opening in the STEM fields.

                                          Our October 2007 editorial covered the issue of an engineering shortage. If you want to encourage someone to pursue engineering, have them read this column in our archives. While this remains a problem, we want to focus on jobs not requiring a college degree. Our educational system loves to track everyone into college, and that’s one of the reasons it is so hard to find skilled technicians and manufacturing workers.

    It’s hard for me to consider almost one million available jobs in light of today’s economic reality. Fortune magazine indicates that the “ranks of the enrolled (government relief) are growing faster than the ranks of the employed.” By 2010, according to the University of Chicago, half of all households with a working-age unemployed adult were collecting food stamps. Since 2009, food-stamp recipients have increased from 21 to 47 million – one-sixth of the country. Why, when so many people are unemployed and seeking assistance, do we have so many jobs to fill? Sounds like a problem with a ready solution.

    One answer is STEM education. Because this problem has been and will be ongoing, it requires a systematic approach. Part of the solution begins in elementary school with a focus on STEM from an early age. While many districts are paying lip-service to STEM, there is room to improve. At the end of 2013 only 26% of students were rated as proficient or higher in math. Antiquated or at least dated curriculum design results in too little focus on engineering (mechanical things) and too much focus on life sciences (living things). STEM education needs some attention so that future workers are qualified when the time comes.

    There is a national STEM initiative called Project Lead the Way (PLTW) that companies such as Lockheed Martin are investing in as a way to prepare for the future. PLTW is used in 6,000 schools across the U.S., so the program nearest you might be a worthy investment in your company’s future. 

    The next obvious solution is training. Training can be from within or without. Setting up an internal program is tough for a small company, so it may be necessary to work through your local vocational training program – secondary or post-secondary – to look for candidates. Recruiters encourage us to hire bright and talented people and find a place for them in our organization. “You can teach skills, but you can’t teach IQ.”

    Another Fortune article on making things in the U.S. indicates that training your own talent is important. This is often an in-house training program for skills such as math and technology.

    Toyota is an example of an all-of-the-above approach. They are a supporter of PLTW and work with their local community college. Historically, they relied on external hires from post-secondary technical programs and other sources of trained individuals. In 2009, however, they decided to address their workforce staffing needs in-house by creating the Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) program. They recruit high-school students into the two-year work/study program, and students can earn an associate’s degree while training in a Toyota facility. When AMT training is completed, 90% are offered an internship, and 95% of those folks are offered jobs.

    The answer to our hiring woes is finding qualified workers. As business leaders, we need to be part of the solution. Support a local PLTW program. Encourage tech schools or community colleges to offer the programs/courses your new hires are lacking, and pay to send them as part of your training program. And if you have the resources, use something like the Toyota model to set up your own in-house training effort. Present and future workers will benefit, and your labor pool will grow. All in! IH