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Column: On Industry: What to do about the skills gap?

Jeremy Lehman

Manufacturing is one of the driving forces of the Minnesota economy. According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, manufacturing accounts for 16 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Additionally, manufacturing directly and indirectly accounts for 1,020,500 jobs, or 36 percent of jobs in the state. However, there is a real shortage of workers with the skills needed in today’s technology-driven manufacturing industry.

A well-trained workforce is critical to the growth of the overall economy in general, and of manufacturing and industry in particular. And the people to fill the available jobs are hard to come by. In a 2011 survey of manufacturers by the Department of Employment and Economic Development, nearly half of respondents reported unfilled positions due to a lack of qualified applicants. In Northeastern Minnesota, it was 44 percent. The big thing to note is qualified applicants, which is at the heart of the skills gap. And it’s not only the “hard” technical skills that are directly related to the job, but it’s also the “soft skills,” such as communication, dealing with coworkers and general workplace habits that are lacking.

What is the root cause of the skills gap? That is the million-dollar question. Maybe it starts with the general perception of manufacturing as dark, dirty, grimy factories with people turning handles on machines. Maybe it’s a disconnect between education and industry, where students aren’t being taught what industry needs. Maybe it’s concerns about offshoring, that all of our manufacturing is headed to low-wage countries like China and India. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these things that make young people just entering the workforce choose not to get into manufacturing.

What is the solution? If the cause of the skills gap is the million-dollar question, this is the billion-dollar question. Industry needs to change people’s perceptions. We need to showcase the clean, bright, high-tech manufacturing facilities that are the norm. We need to work closely with education to make sure students are learning the things they need to be successful in these careers. We need to emphasize that while a lot of manufacturing has gone offshore, what is here is more technical, complex and specialized work that needs smart, driven, creative people to do it.

There has been a lot of progress on these fronts, with industry and trade associations in the state taking the lead in working with educators, trying to change the perceptions of manufacturing and industry, and getting kids interested in STEM. Just this last legislative session, the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association, with support from Arrowhead Manufacturers and Fabricators Association (our friendly local trade group) worked to pass legislation to improve youth apprenticeships. There’s a lot yet to be done, but I think we’re on the right track. I’m really excited to see what we can come up with.

Jeremy Lehman is the machining production manager at TriTec of Minnesota, a Virginia metal fabricator serving the mining, power, paper and construction industries. He is also the president of Arrowhead Manufacturers and Fabricators Association, a trade association representing over 100 manufacturers, educators, and suppliers in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin. He can be reached at jeremy@tritecmn.com.

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