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Manufacturers Must Take the Lead in Bridging the Skills Gap

Manufacturers Must Take the Lead in Bridging the Skills Gap

It should come as no surprise to manufacturers that the average age of a skilled worker is now over 50. I am only one of the many who have researched and written about the looming shortage of skilled labor for more than a decade. So why are we still having this conversation when we could see it coming? Why has recruitment and training of new talent not kept pace?

While the manufacturing industry complains about not finding the right workers for jobs, let’s consider who failed to fill the pipeline. The era of plentiful apprenticeship opportunities ended in the late 1960s, and those apprentices are the very same journeymen who are leaving now.

History shows there’s no secret to building a skilled workforce: it must be trained.

The need for skills in the manufacturing industry was even more crucial during the Second World War. Farm hands and housewives did not just pick up tools and start building tanks. The government’s War Manpower Commission worked with manufacturers to develop Training Within Industry (TWI), a framework for on-the-job skills training. Unfortunately, after proven success during the war, TWI disappeared.

However, in Japan, where TWI was used to help Japan’s economy recover from devastation, Toyota never let go of it. Their continued quality dominance in the auto industry is no accident—TWI still provides Toyota with a quality workforce, not just in Japan but everywhere the company makes cars.

The good news is that today there’s a TWI upsurge, and TWI guidelines and materials are openly available on the Internet. Any manufacturer can use its pattern for developing its own coaches, curriculum, materials and workforce skills. For example, organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) are developing new standards, certifications and apprenticeship models

Henry Ford built the assembly line 100 years ago, but it’s not so well-known that 101 years ago he established the Henry Ford Trade School. As the assembly line accelerated production growth and expansion, he needed masses of skilled workers. The school reached out to needy high school-age boys and taught them the skills they needed to become journeymen and successes in life.

The Henry Ford Trade School continued its work into the 1950s and the Henry Ford Community College now carries on its legacy. Following Henry Ford’s example, manufacturers today have to reach out and support manufacturing programs at their local community colleges, sharing their needs, opportunities and cash.

This year marks 70 years since American manufacturing (and TWI) helped bring World War II to its end. Next year will be the centenary of the Henry Ford Trade School. These two anniversaries should remind manufacturers that they must take the lead in training the people the industry depends on.

Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray Construction.