Building a Country That Builds Things

The manufacturing industry faces a serious skills gap.

Boeing 787 jet in the assembly process.
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Americans want a country that builds things.

Indeed, the manufacturing industry has been touted by President Obama, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, state and local leaders – actually, just about everyone agrees that a strong manufacturing base is key to our nation's future success.

But we have a problem. We don't have the people we need.

Some 82 percent of manufacturers say they can't find workers with the right skills. Even with so many people looking for jobs, we're struggling to attract the next generation of workers. The message about the opportunities in manufacturing doesn't seem to be reaching parents and counselors who help guide young people's career ambitions.

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We face two major problems – a skills gap and a perception gap. Today's modern, technology-driven manufacturing is not your grandparents' manufacturing, yet for many, talk of the sector evokes images from the Industrial Revolution. 

But times have changed – manufacturing has changed. The jobs are challenging. Welders, CNC programmers and operators, electricians, pipefitters, machinists – to cite a few examples – are highly skilled. And the jobs pay well. The average manufacturing worker earns roughly $77,000.

The jobs take talent, know-how and teamwork, but they don't require a four-year college degree. It's time for us to admit that college isn't for everyone, and a college degree doesn't guarantee success. Instead of pushing all students down one path toward a four-year degree, shouldn't we instead focus on developing the skills and knowledge actually needed for the workforce of today and tomorrow?

We see bright opportunities as manufacturers invest in the United States. For example, in just the past five years, Caterpillar announced major investments in new factories in Texas, Georgia and Indiana to name a few, not to mention investing hundreds of millions of dollars in some of our large existing facilities in our home state of Illinois. Also, many foreign-based manufacturers aren't just importing their products to the United States. They are actually building facilities and producing goods here, and then exporting them to other countries. That's not to say manufacturing jobs are immune from cyclical downturns and other economic factors, but the long-term trends look positive.

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Job openings will increase in the years ahead due to an aging manufacturing workforce. Many workers are rapidly nearing retirement, and no one is there to fill the void they will leave. This demographic reality heralds an outstanding opportunity for young people, with more open jobs in manufacturing than workers who are qualified to fill them.

Today – the second-annual Manufacturing Day – manufacturers across the country are opening their facilities to their communities. High school and college students are getting a glimpse of modern manufacturing. And, perhaps for the first time, they will get to experience our high-tech and dynamic sector up close. This is just the first step.

The National Association of Manufacturers is committed to growing tomorrow's manufacturing workforce so that we have the talent to compete in the global economy. Through our affiliate, The Manufacturing Institute, we're working on a number of fronts to train workers for the demands of modern manufacturing.

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One promising initiative – a collaboration between manufacturers and our allies in the business community – seeks to attract veterans to the manufacturing workforce. Many of the men and women who are leaving our armed services have skills that match perfectly with manufacturers' needs. We're working to connect them. And if veterans need additional training, we've created educational pathways at community colleges so that they can learn new skills and transition to a manufacturing career.

But to make these programs work we still have to fix manufacturing's perception problem. Just three in 10 parents want their children to choose manufacturing as their career.