Among my job duties is scouring the Internet for news of interest to the metal fabricating community. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t run across items related to a topic of particular interest to metal fabricators—the shortage of skilled labor. It seems that every notable publication nationwide has addressed and continues to address the subject that cannot be resolved expediently enough for many manufacturers. So old, yet still timely news.
What’s relatively new in my searches—say in the last year or so—is the proliferation of news items from local media about expanded technical training programs in high schools, community colleges, and universities all across the country. I see these almost daily. It’s a far cry from what I was seeing almost a decade ago when these programs were being decimated.
In June of 2003, I wrote an article for thefabricator.com about “The future of vocational education.” As part of my research for this article, I asked “Fabricating Update” readers whether vocational programs in their areas of the country had been cut. Seventy-five percent said yes, and many of those who responded that programs were still intact expressed concern that they might be cut in the near future.
That article still “lives” on the Internet and occasionally turns up in searches, such as the one a year ago that prompter the searcher to leave this comment:
“So here I am, in 2011, doing research on what happened to vocational education and I found this article written 8 years ago. I wonder if any of the unemployed protesters at Wall Street (as of October 6, 2011) who think it is someone else’s fault that they don't have good jobs ever considered getting a job as a welder 10 years ago. I'm betting they all turned up their noses to vocational education back then, as they would turn up their noses to being offered a job as a welder today.
“Our government pulled the funding from the wrong programs, but perhaps that is exactly what NAFTA needed, so we could bring in more unskilled labor types from other countries and offer them the jobs, or send the jobs to their country.”
Hindsight being 20-20, this reader is right, at least about funding being pulled from the wrong programs—those designed to train the next generations of manufacturing workers. Industry would have been served much better had these programs continued.
But that’s just part of the story. In many cases, these programs were cut because of dwindling enrollment. We became a nation of college-bound young people who held manufacturing careers and skilled trades in disdain. Never mind that the guy you call to repair your leaking toilet probably makes more than you do in a year. It’s all about image. Smart people go to college to prepare for careers; all others train for a trade or flip burgers.
“American Mismatch,” an article published November 26 on National Review Online, cited the most recent report from ThomasNet that shows 67 percent of manufacturing companies see a moderate to severe shortage of skilled workers, and last year, as many as 600,000 went unfilled, according to a much-cited Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute report.
“This mismatch embodies the best and worst of American culture. On the one hand, American manufacturers have bested their international competition, becoming even more efficient after their recent struggles. On the other, there’s been a cultural shift that denigrates the value of manufacturing work, instead pushing young people into ever more impractical fields of study.”
Those of us in manufacturing witnessed this cultural shift in the making and sounded the alarm at every opportunity. Our cries fell on the deaf ears of politicians, educators, and the young people we hoped to attract.
So, while we are grateful for the newly introduced and expanded programs and high enrollments, we have to be vigilant regarding how crises of all kinds are managed in our society. Why is it that situations have to reach critical mass before they are addressed? With the right measures, we could have prevented this worker shortage.
And while we may be headed in the right direction in terms of vocational education, for now, let’s not get complacent. There is still a large disparity between aid for traditional and vocational education. As noted in the article “Why College May Not Be the Best Choice for Your Education Dollar,” “One of the problems facing vocational students is a lack of government leadership when it comes to funding. Despite President Obama’s outspoken support of post-secondary vocational training, there has been a distinct gap between his rhetoric and his administration’s policies. In its 2012 budget request, the Department of Education cut funding for career and technical education by $263.8 million, more than 20 percent.
“On the other hand, the Obama administration was far more generous toward traditional college education. In the same year that it slashed spending on vocational training, it increased financial aid to college students by 29 percent and added a 35 percent increase to its tax breaks for college students.
“Put another way, the federal government spends over $166 billion on student aid and over $14 billion on tax benefits for college students, but only $1 billion on vocational education.
“Yet, government lassitude aside, the demand for skilled workers is continuing to rise, bringing higher salaries in its wake. In other words, for students who are willing to do the necessary research and planning, community college and trade school, once the neglected children of the American educational system are starting to look like really good bets.”
Next week, I’m going to address something U.S. companies can do to keep the worker pipeline flowing.
Until then, encourage a bright young person to consider vocational education and prepare for a career in manufacturing. Chances are he or she will have more job opportunities than their friends who choose a university liberal arts path.
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