Resources for the Manufacturing Recovery

September 2010

Amidst the bad news and talk of double dips (and I don’t mean ice cream cones), there have been several bright spots in the news lately concerning the status and prospects of U.S. manufacturing. The most recent ISM report was a pleasant surprise, showing unexpected growth and optimism for U.S. factory production. There have been several news articles in various papers telling of companies bringing production back to the U.S. that was previously outsourced to the Far East. A number of industrial companies have reported decent business volumes and earnings and have expressed (cautious) optimism in their projections for the next few quarters.

As I talk to companies around New England and beyond, I’m hearing that business is improving from the doldrums of 2009 but many companies have not been hiring at the same rate. In other words, reduced staffs are being asked to do more and more as business increases.

There are several easily identifiable reasons for this lag in hiring.  One is an understandable reluctance to take on the commitment of new full time employees with all the associated benefits costs, etc. when there is still some doubt about the strength and durability of the recovery, what’s going to happen with taxes and government incentives, and what changes the upcoming election might bring. Another reason is a shortage of talent. Hard to believe? Perhaps, but it is really not a question of volume but one of matching; of difficulty in finding people with the right skills and experience.

While continued high unemployment rates indicate that there should be a large pool of workers out there to choose from, the reality is that there is a shortage of machinists, technicians and production workers as well as supply chain professionals and certain other operations management fields. Many of the experienced workers have abandoned manufacturing because they were laid off in the past (some of them a number of times) and many believe that U.S. manufacturing is dying and there are no opportunities there. Many colleges and universities have greatly reduced or even eliminated operations management curricula because of lack of demand. It’s a sad turn of events.

While it may not solve the immediate problem, I think we all, collectively, need to recognize the skills and education shortages and do what we can to start rebuilding our human resource pools. I’m reminded of professional baseball’s farm system – all of the teams, so a greater or lesser extent, nurture talented young prospects and help them build their skills and experience up to the point where they can play in the big leagues. I think trade schools and community colleges are best positioned to train the future manufacturing workers and manufacturers would be well served to support that effort.

Visit these schools in your area and support them through donations of money and/or un-needed equipment or materials. Make presentations to students and prospective students about what you do and what you need in the way of future employees. Sponsor projects, contests, field trips, and other activities to build interest in manufacturing as a career. The schools will likely be very interested in putting together training classes and workshops for current employees and maybe tailor their curriculum to better fit your specific needs.  Don’t forget SME, ISM, APICS and other training sources.  APICS offers certifications – CPIM, CSCP, Lean, etc. – and regularly scheduled learning opportunities (Professional Development Meetings and seminar programs) to enhance the skills of existing workers and help them better support your company’s growth and success.