Since 2009, the manufacturing industry has grappled with the problem of the skills gap, an issue growing a little bit bigger each year. For a while, industry proponents have hypothesized how it will deal with changes that will continue to intensify over time. 2018 was no exception with the what some dubbed the “Silver Tsunami”. The retirement of a growing number of Baby Boomers across the industry. The Silver Tsunami equated to approximately 391,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs unfilled in the first quarter of 2018.
Frequently, those looking to solve the problem propose to mend the gap through the implementation of a robust apprenticeship system and trade school options. Proponents argue these measures could also improve long-standing issues of unemployment or underemployment for high school graduates (3.9 percent) and college dropouts (2.1 percent), numbers reported by the DOL in Sept. 2018. Within some industries, this tactic is finding success with most apprenticeships happening in the building and construction industries. Less than 10 percent of apprenticeships occur in the manufacturing industry.
Skills Gap Factors
- Aging U.S. workforce
- Tendency of niche skills to become quickly outdated, necessitating re-training
- Emphasis on classroom training versus hands-on work on the factory floor
- Educational focus on college and university over vocational/trade learning
- Middle-skills jobs requiring more education and training than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree
At the national level, there is no lack of advocacy for apprenticeships. President Trump backed the Labor Department Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion in June 2017. The initiative included a host of impressive supporters including cabinet secretaries, Fortune 500 CEOs, union reps and representatives from the National Association of Manufacturers. Further support for technical training education came from the re-authorization of the Perkins Act. First authorized in 1984 and reauthorized in 1998, 2006 and 2018, the Perkins Act strives to increase the quality of career and technical education for Americans to help the economy.
Despite an ongoing desire to use apprenticeships and trade programs to mend the skills gap, some still question if apprenticeships are the right fit for the manufacturing industry. Though slightly dated, a 2016 nationwide survey found three-quarters of manufacturers are not experiencing hiring difficulties. Those who struggle with hiring are in specialized areas.
Can these initiatives thrive if they aren’t backed by business owners who would, in theory, welcome the solution? Without the backing of apprenticeship programs by those in private industry, it’s often difficult for government initiatives to make the intended impact. Realizing success through the implementation of more apprenticeships and increased backing for trade school education will likely need support beyond the walls of Washington to truly make an impact on those within the industry.
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