By Gerald Shankel

America’s industrial revolution in the 19th century propelled economic development and served as the springboard for this nation to become a world power. Sadly, a number of factors after World War II led to a manufacturing malaise that knocked the US off its lofty production perch. Fortunately, new dynamics are now at work which, if this country responds with intelligence and fortitude, can create an ‘industrial evolution’ that will revive our manufacturing prowess.

A pipedream of industry insiders? Unsubstantiated optimism expressed by corporate leaders? Wishful thinking from trade groups?

Not at all – if manufacturers, educators, trade groups and even the media work to fill a critical need: dramatically increasing the pool of available, highly skilled industrial workers. Many experts view filling this labor shortage as America’s biggest challenge to achieve a manufacturing renaissance and, ultimately, a vastly improved economy.

Where we’re at
The problem is pervasive. Here’s just a small sampling of many recent media and industry reports:

  • USA Today: “Manufacturers, regardless of size, are reporting a dire shortage of skilled workers: people such as welders, electricians or machinists with a craft that goes beyond pushing buttons or stacking boxes but does not require a degree.”
  • National Association of Manufacturers survey (NAM): More than 80 percent of 800 manufacturers said they were experiencing a shortage of skilled workers.
  • Modern Metals editorial: “Manufacturing is a skilled profession and many employers are saying that people aren’t educated enough and the skilled labor simply isn’t available.”

In addition, results from a 2007 survey of Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA) members revealed the biggest challenge they face – by far – is the dwindling supply of skilled workers. Some 40 percent felt this way, far surpassing concerns such as the rising costs of materials, labor and benefits (cited by 17 percent), staying competitive globally (11 percent) and staying current with new technologies and regulations (6 percent).

Manufacturing mojo lost
Discussing why our country is in this predicament will offer many clues on how to remedy it. In some ways, we witnessed a ‘perfect storm’ of elements. Education priorities today rarely position manufacturing as a preferred career choice

This is one conclusion reached by the US Department of Labor (DOL) when one of its economic reports stated, “Too few young people consider manufacturing careers and often are unaware of the skills needed in an advanced manufacturing environment. Similarly, the K-12 system neither adequately imparts the necessary skills nor educates students on manufacturing career opportunities.”[1]

High school counselors often contribute to the malady by directing so many of their students to the typical four-year university program and not considering manufacturing. An illustration of this problem recently occurred in Rockford, Ill., when the school superintendent took counselors to manufacturing shops. Most had never been inside a manufacturing facility so, naturally, they steered students to traditional college curricula. Upon exposure to the modern production facilities, the counselors changed their message to indicate that a four-year degree was not the only route to take. Recently, FMA joined with a half dozen local Rockford manufacturers to finance the cost of busing nearly 150 Rockford high school students and their teachers to the FABTECH International & AWS Welding Show in Chicago to introduce them to the reality of today’s manufacturing world first-hand.

The NAM reached the conclusion about the education gap back in 2003, when it noted, “Research showed that the United States’ educational system exacerbates the negative perception of manufacturing because it is largely out of step with the career opportunities emerging for young people in today’s economy, including those in manufacturing.”[2]

Foreign born bring language barriers
Manufacturing jobs do appeal to many immigrants, yet those who have difficulties with English as their second language often face hurdles that preclude learning the job skills effectively and/or communicating well. Thus, manufacturing effectiveness takes another hit, acknowledged in 2007 by the DOL, noting, “The manufacturing workforce is increasingly foreign born, meaning that possessing adequate English language skills is becoming a prominent challenge.”[3]

Manufacturing jobs went overseas
Emerging technologies in India and China initially resulted in a steady stream of jobs going overseas because of low labor rates. Some countries offered temporary incentive subsidies, too, in the form of abatements on taxes, permits, licensing and training.

New skills required
Most of the fastest growing jobs today are in industries requiring advanced knowledge and skills and often offer high wages, according to US Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.[4] But, as noted earlier, many in the available workforce lack these skills and the educational background. The nation has shed five million manufacturing jobs in three decades, but higher-skilled factory jobs increasingly go unfulfilled as employers deal with applicants with poor reading and math abilities and a bad attitude about blue-collar work.[5]

Manufacturing gets no respect today
The poor image of manufacturing during recent years – and still today – may be the most powerful factor driving the skilled workers shortage. The DOL, in a candid overview, has stated, “Manufacturing confronts a negative image, characterized by such phrases as ‘declining,’ ‘dirty,’ ‘low-pay,’ etc. Consequently, too few highly skilled workers seriously consider manufacturing careers.”[6]

A division of the DOL, Advanced Manufacturing Industry, Employment and Training Administration, also chimed in. It said, “Popular perceptions of manufacturing jobs as dark, dangerous and dirty are largely outdated as advanced robotics and other ‘intelligent’ systems become pervasive throughout the manufacturing process.”[7]

Even from a cultural perspective, manufacturing is not part of the American mindset and makeup, particularly among young people. After the baby boom generation, manufacturing took a back seat to newer information technologies and many people no longer wanted to get their hands dirty. John Sinn of the Center of Applied Technology at Bowling Green University, believes, “Culturally, we have browbeaten manufacturing to such an extent that we don’t have people interested.”[8]

Why manufacturing can be the dream job
Changing this landscape is doable. The American manufacturing community and others connected to it can position manufacturing as the dream job by leveraging these trends with vigor and verve:

The industry has changed

Innovations and new technologies implemented in factories and plants from coast to coast and border to border have dramatically transformed manufacturing. Of course, such complex new production technologies require highly-trained production workers.

The jobs are ‘cool’ and appealing
With such developments, workers can now be experts and operate the most advanced, sophisticated equipment and automated apparatus in the world. They can cut steel with laser lights, perform laser welding and plasma cutting, operate water jets and program robotics. Due to this, computer/high tech skills are needed, which dovetails to what younger people love these days; these jobs can be more fun than many service jobs.

Wages are good
Manufacturers will pay a premium for this expertise and offer excellent, highly competitive wages. One welder from Illinois summed this trend concisely when he told an Atlanta newspaper, “We are doing a blue collar job and make white collar money.”

Jobs are plentiful
Concurrently, the manufacturing work force is shrinking. So, opportunities will abound. According to projections by the DOL, between 2002 and 2012 there will be two million job openings in computer science, math, engineering and physical sciences; and 2.4 million skilled production jobs for machinists, machine assemblers and operators, systems operators and technicians.[9]

A presentation by Eric Mittlestadt, CEO of The National Council for Advanced Manufacturing, at the 2007 American Welding Society Conference, also addressed the “shrinking US workforce.” By 2018, he said, 70 million baby boomers will retire, 40 million new workers will enter the workforce, creating 30 million fewer available workers.

Skilled jobs are staying in the US
American manufacturers are discovering specialized work cannot be done overseas. The Chicago Tribune reports in a story headlined, “Lack of qualified workers threatens India’s success,” that although “Indian schools churn out 400,000 new engineers every year, as few as 100,000 are actually ready to join the job world.” China, the country that so many see as an overwhelming threat to US jobs, may be no longer. According to Business Insurance magazine, “While China has a lot of raw, hardworking talent, employees who lack the necessary skills set is one of the key bottlenecks to growth for most multinationals there. Just 10 percent of Chinese engineers are suitable for work at non-Chinese companies.”

There is a prevailing mood in general that taking advantage of low labor rates overseas may by not be as advantageous as it seems. There are intangible costs involving political control and currency risks and lack of protection for intellectual property. Additional real costs are increased inventories and delays in time-to-market.

This is not just theory. Here’s what a manufacturer executive told an industry trade journal: “I have spoken to at least three different customers lately who told me that jobs that went to China are returning because of quality issues.”

What must be done
The convergence of these factors has laid the foundation for an industrial evolution in this country. Yet, there remain many blocks to build to complete the process. Fortunately, initial progress has been made. Here’s what’s needed:

Industry sectors must team up and help drive the process
Entities that include local economic councils, government units, schools and manufacturers themselves need to create programs and work together. In Maryland, for example, the Carroll County Department of Economic Development, Carroll Community College and manufacturing industries joined forces to address a workforce shortage in the region. The Carroll County Manufacturing Consortium recruits and attracts qualified and trained workers to the county’s many specialized niche manufacturing industries.[10]

Then, you have the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council (CMRC) which, a couple of years ago, forged a unique partnership of Chicago’s business, labor, government, education and community leaders. The consortium works to educate the public regarding the image and societal appreciation of modern, high-tech manufacturing; reform the public education and workforce development systems; and enhance government programs for manufacturers and their workers.[11]

The Dream It. Do It. campaign, a program started in 2006 to educate and train local people to fill manufacturing jobs in Smyth and Washington counties in Virginia, uses grants from state and local agencies. Already, students have enrolled in 450 occupational and leadership skill training classes and area community colleges, which offer courses specified by the local manufacturers.[12]

Bottom line: Such initiatives should be fostered in all regions of the country.

Reach out to potential job candidates when they are young
Who would imagine that woodworking and welding would replace swimming and sports as major activities for a number of youngsters who attend summer camps? Yet, such programs are starting to flourish, introducing young people to the joys of making things.

FMA offers grants for manufacturing summer camps at locations across the country aimed at changing the image of manufacturing for youth. The camps provide positive, hands-on experiences so young people will consider manufacturing as a career. They target youth at the critical level of secondary education, exposing them to math, science and engineering principles and giving them opportunities to see the technology being used in industry and the high level of skills required.

Another example is a program offered by the Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania – week-long Advanced Technology summer camps in engineering and nanotechnology/biotechnology for high school students. They are introduced to physics, engineering, graphics, chemical engineering, robotics binary coding and material science.[13]

Even the YMCA has joined the manufacturing camp movement! Camp Matawa outside West Bend, Wis., offers its one-week Toolin’ It! program with activities in computer-aided design, computer numeric factoring, control pressing, die making and machinery.

Bottom line: Parents and educators should recognize the availability of such programs and consider introducing their children and students to these fun, learning experiences.

Get educators on board
The education system is beginning to join the evolution, although this is an area that often will require significant urging to those in academia – as well as funding.

To illustrate, a new, innovative initiative at Max S. Hayes High School in Cleveland provides students the 21st century skills needed to become blue-collar employees working in manufacturing and computers. The program has a rigorous curriculum, including calculus, chemistry, physics, robotics competitions and rotations in computer-aided design and drafting, computer numerical control machining, robotics and engineering welding.[14]

In Milwaukee, after years of cuts, shop classes are returning to local schools. Milwaukee Public Schools re-opened welding labs at two high schools this year. The system started robotics at three high schools in fall 2007, expanded a program in computer-integrated manufacturing and launched a small-engine program with equipment donated by Briggs & Stratton.[15]

Manufacturers can respond by launching their own programs. Recognizing the shortage of skilled labor, Midwest Metal Products in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is paying for training courses and certification and providing paid internship positions to acquire locally trained skilled workers. They and other companies in town worked with the local community college to develop appropriate curriculum. The Project Lead the Way class in Milwaukee has funding via a three-year, $455,000 contribution by Rockwell Automation aimed at middle schools to eventually increase and improve candidates for Rockwell’s engineering scholarship.

Bottom line: Trade groups and manufacturing executives should aggressively convey to educators the need to create curricula that provides young people the knowledge and skills in demand today on the factory floor.

Recognize overseas labor is not the panacea
There is a trend now away from relying on overseas work and manufacturers must understand why this is happening – and keep more work at home.

Active Magazine recently noted, “Not long ago, the default answer to sagging manufacturing profits was to slash labor costs by moving the factory overseas. But many manufacturers now realize that off shoring doesn’t always make sense. Offshore risks include uneven quality control, safety issues with finished goods, communication breakdown because of language barriers, political upheaval and high transportation costs.”

Bottom line: Government and economic leaders must frequently communicate such perspectives to manufacturing executives.

Overhaul the image of manufacturing
Thankfully, new attitudes and perceptions regarding the jobs we do are beginning to get traction.

In Carroll County, Maryland, a local economic council is pledged to overcome preconceived notions of traditional manufacturing and present manufacturing jobs as an appealing option for youth; a marketing committee was formed to generate ideas to do just that.[16]

The New Steel campaign from the steel industry portrays positive features of the industry in national ads.

And, on a smaller scale, the Dream It. Do It. program in Virginia actively spreads the word about manufacturing jobs. Campaign Director Bruce Kravitz says he visits area high schools and pays for local ads. He sets up computer kiosks at the high schools and community colleges to promote the program.[17]

Bottom line: We must constantly inform the media about all of these exciting initiatives with energetic public information campaigns, work with them to help tell these stories to the public – and convince young people dream jobs are there for the taking.

Keep the dreams alive
The American Dream has been part of this country’s fabric since tits founding. The dream has taken many forms for U.S. citizens – freedom in all of its manifestations, security and protection, living comfortably and working and earning a decent wage. That last quest has taken a bit of a hit in recent years, particularly for those employed at making products.

However, we’re on the cusp of reviving that dream for millions. The beauty is that this is a shared dream, beginning with the manufacturers themselves, who are clamoring for motivated, skilled and enthusiastic workers. Then, there are many organizations now working in concert to help make such relationships happen. And, the influential power of the press is changing course by focusing on the needs – and opportunities.

Lastly, we have the young people themselves. As they recognize the exciting potential to work with the most advanced technologies, in a clean, comfortable environment and receive a high level of wage commensurate with the high skills required, this American dream will live again.


  1. United States Department of Labor Employment & Training Administration, June 8, 2007
  2. National Association of Manufacturing, “Keeping America Competitive,” April 2003
  3. United States Department of Labor Employment & Training Administration, June 8, 2007
  4. Lyric Wallwork Winik, “How Safe Is Your Job?”, Parade, July 1, 2007
  5. Thomas Sheeran, “Manufacturing’s Evolution Leaving Jobs Unfulfilled,” Arkansas Democrat Gazette, May 19, 2007
  6. United States Department of Labor Employment & Training Administration, June 8, 2007
  7. United States Department of Labor Employment & Training Administration, “Addressing the Workforce Challenges of America’s Advanced Manufacturing Workforce,” An ETA/Business Relations Group Report
  8. Barbara Hagenbaugh, “Wanted: Factory Workers,” USA Today, December 5, 2006
  9. National Association of Manufacturing, “Manufacturing a High Performance Workforce,” Solutions White Paper series
  10. “Captivating Youth Interest in High-Tech Manufacturing Fields,” SSTI Weekly Digest, July 18, 2007
  11. Chicago Jobs Council, “Marketing the New Image,” Fall/Winter 2006
  12. Christopher Brooks, “Program Helps Local Employers Train Workers,” Bristol Herald Courier, June 10, 2007
  13. Captivating Youth Interest in High-Tech Manufacturing Fields,” SSTI Weekly Digest, July 18, 2007
  14. Sheeran, Arkansas Democrat Gazette
  15. Joel Dresang, “Renewing allure of Nuts & Bolts,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 26, 2007
  16. Captivating Youth Interest in High-Tech Manufacturing Fields,” SSTI Weekly Digest, July 18, 2007
  17. Brooks, Bristol Herald Courier

About the author
Gerald Shankel is President and CEO of Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA).

About FMA
The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA), based in Rockford, Ill., is a professional organization with more than 2,000 individual and company members working together to improve the metal forming and fabricating industry. Founded in 1970, FMA brings metal fabricators and fabricating equipment manufacturers together through technology councils, educational programs, networking events, and FABTECH International & AWS Welding Show. The official publications of FMA include – The FABRICATOR®, TPJ -The Tube & Pipe Journal®, STAMPING Journal®, and Practical Welding Today®. FMA also has a technology affiliate, the Tube & Pipe Association, International (TPA), which focuses on the unique needs of companies engaged in tube and pipe producing and fabricating. FMA serves members involved in the following processes: bending, blanking, cutting, drawing, extruding, fastening, finishing, leveling, piercing, punching, roll forming, shearing, slitting, spinning, straightening, stamping, swaging, and welding. FMA serves members in the United States and Canada, as well as more than 40 other countries. Contact the organization at Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International, 833 Featherstone Rd., Rockford, IL 61107, USA; Phone: +1-815-399-8775 ; Fax: +1-815-484-7701; E-mail: [email protected] URL:



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