University of Michigan Professor, Corporate Consultant Hatch Novel Idea: Train American Workers

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By Joe Guzzardi

Joe is a CAPS Senior Writing Fellow whose commentaries about California's social issues have run in newspapers throughout California and the country for nearly 30 years. Contact Joe at joeguzzardi@capsweb.org, or find him on Twitter @joeguzzardi19.

The writer's views are his own.

March 22, 2012

For years American workers have been slammed by a twin-edged sword. Solid blue collar jobs that paid living wages and included benefits packages have been off-shored. Domestically, cheap foreign labor, some of it legally in the United States on non-immigrant visas and rest of it illegal, replaced Americans.

But, according to University of Michigan public policy Professor Thomas A. Hemphill, after 12 consecutive years of declines U.S. manufacturers added 109,000 workers to their payrolls in 2010, another 237,000 in 2011 and in January 2012, about 50,000 more.

In his recent Wall Street Journal editorial that Hemphill co-authored with Mark Perry, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, he pointed out that even bigger strides could be made in manufacturing if more workers with the right skills could be recruited. An October 2011 survey of American manufacturers taken by Deloitte Consulting LLP found that responding businesses reported that 5 percent of their jobs remain unfilled because employers could not find adequately trained workers. [U.S. Manufacturing and the Skills Crisis, by Thomas A. Hemphill and Mark A. Perry, Wall Street Journal, February 29, 2012]

The authors concluded that:

“The 5 percent vacancy rate meant that an astounding 600,000 jobs were left unfilled during a period when national unemployment was above 9 percent. According to 74 percent of these manufacturers, work-force shortages or skills deficiencies in production positions such as machinists, craft workers and technicians were keeping them from expanding operations or improving productivity.”

Typically, editorials that bemoan worker shortages conclude that more visas must be immediately issued or, an even worse idea, lift the existing caps on certain categories of visas. But that is not Hemphill and Perry’s solution. Instead they recommend that manufacturers partner with adult education centers and trade schools to teach workers the job skills they’ll need to re-enter the employment market.

Years ago, most U.S. manufacturing jobs involved manual tasks such as basic assembly. But today's industrial workplace has evolved toward a technology-driven factory floor that relies on special but learnable talents.

Ed Hughes, president and CEO of Gateway Community and Technical College in Kentucky, described the shift to what is widely known as “advanced manufacturing” which relies on “computation and software, sensing, networking and automation and the use of emerging capabilities from the physical and biological sciences. Hughes said:

"In the 1980s, U.S. manufacturing was 80 percent brawn and 20 percent brains but now it's 10 percent brawn and 90 percent brains.”

Community colleges in several states have entered into corporate partnerships to offer programs titled “Right Skills Now” and  Manufacturing Skills Certification System.

While it’s refreshing to read an analysis of America’s job shortage that doesn’t call for a huge increase in foreign-born labor, the road  ahead for re-training U.S. workers will be rocky no matter how well intended.

After killing jobs for three decades, management should not reasonably expect to suddenly go out and locate well suited employees. Management is guilty of, among other things, short term planning. When it opted off-shored in huge numbers, it left little room for re-establishing its U.S. employee pool.

A more effective program than sending adults back to school which would have the inevitable bureaucratic headaches would be for manufacturers to hire directly and provide on the job training.

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