National Press Club

Industry experts: Partnerships between schools, local businesses can close manufacturing skills gap

May 6, 2014 | By Yasmine El-Sabawi |

You have to start them young to get them interested, and it has to be a community effort.

That’s the message business and education leaders in the U.S.'s manufacturing and energy sectors hammered home at a May 6 National Press Club Newsmakers event, where they emphasized the importance of young people in addressing the growing skills gap in the two industries.

America’s manufacturing sector alone is looking to fill some 600,000 skilled positions at a time when jobs are badly needed. Yet,few workers have the necessary skills to fill the jobs, even though manufacturing is rebounding and starting salaries are rising.

The general public has “a vision of manufacturing as a dark, dirty, dangerous and dumb industry,” and that’s one of the biggest hurdles to overcome, said Ted Toth, CEO of Rosenberger-Toth in Pennsauken, N.J., also chair of the National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA).

Toth explained that as high schools drop their vocational training and apprenticeship programs, young people no longer understand what a manufacturing job looks like or why they should pursue one.

“Due to the upgrade in technology, we now define our workers as 'blue-tech' workers,” rather than the traditional “blue collar” employees, said Toth. “Blue techs work with their hands, they work with their heads, they utilize technology such as computerized machines and robotics -- at three to four times the minimum wage,” he said.

But closing the skills gap has no "quick fix," he acknowledged.

That’s where partnerships between schools and local businesses come in, with the aid of groups like the NTMA and the Precision Metalforming Association (PMA), said the panelists. "You have to take the bull by the horns," insisted PMA chair Jody Fledderman.

Parents have to be convinced that there are good opportunities in manufacturing, Fledderman said. A willing school administrator, he added, is also crucial in developing a technical curriculum based on recommendations from local businesses.

Fledderman, who is also the CEO of Batesville Tool & Die in Batesville, Ind., described the partnership with one of the schools in the city to conduct co-op programs. "Kids are trained to operate machines and do meaningful things” starting in junior high school, he explained. By the time they’re in senior year, they’re being paid, he said, and they graduate just one semester short of an associate degree “that didn’t cost them anything.”

Businesses are then prepared to hire these skilled graduates and pay for their last semester.
“The time they spend at our plants counts as college credits,” he noted.

“This is gonna be a 20-year-old kid or 19-year-old kid [who] we’re going to start at 35 or 40 thousand dollars,” said Fledderman.

Mark Volk, president of Lackawanna College, Scranton, Pa., described the petroleum and natural gas curriculum he launched at the two-year college. He observed that the value of an associate degree is often “downplayed” because people don’t know they can earn “well beyond family sustainable wages,” and go all the way to six-figures.

Volk said a vocational education is a “life-changing opportunity” for young people, especially when they are retained locally and can stay close to their families.

At the end of the day, however, Fledderman said businesses are willing to train their employees in their own unique ways, so previous experience is not always necessary. As long as there are basic technical skills and an interest in the industry, he said, “we’ll teach them.”