Closing the skills gap in high tech manufacturing: Education and training required to meet changing workplace demand

We’ve emphasized the importance of making sure that our state provides young people with training and education required to succeed in a rapidly evolving economy. The Associated Press report today on changes in high tech manufacturing provides another good example. Technological advances have led to a change in labor demand in some of our nation’s most vibrant industries. And, again, the skills gap poses problems for employers and workers. 

American manufacturers have actually added nearly a million jobs in the past seven years. Labor statistics show nearly 390,000 such jobs open.

The problem? Many of these are not the same jobs that for decades sustained the working class. More and more factory jobs now demand education, technical know-how or specialized skills. And many of the workers set adrift from low-tech factories lack such qualifications.

Factories will need to fill 2 million jobs over the next decade, according to a forecast by Deloitte Consulting and the American Manufacturing Institute. Workers are needed to run, operate and troubleshoot computer-directed machinery, including robots, and to maintain complex websites…

the United States for now remains a follower, not a leader, of the trend. Workers in many European and Asian countries are more likely to be working with robots than U.S. workers, studies show. In such countries as Japan and Denmark, robotics and advanced automation have created solid jobs while increasing efficiencies for manufacturers.

In part, the increased use of robotics and advanced automation in Europe and Japan can be attributed to higher labor costs, which have made it easier to justify the costs associated with the shift to automation. As we wrote earlier today, that’s another example of the calculation employers are making when they consider tradeoffs with a higher minimum wage.

For both employers and employees, to successfully navigate the emerging economy it’s vital that the skills gap be closed. AP illustrates the point.

Festo Didactic, the education arm of Germany-based Festo, last year launched two-year mechatronics apprenticeship programs in Ohio with Sinclair Community College, and is already expanding its U.S. apprenticeship offerings. At Festo’s plant in Mason, workers monitor a robotic distribution system that self-adjusts its work flow to prevent backups.

“This kind of factory has nothing to do with the factory we knew in the 1960s or 1980 or even 2000,” said Yannick Schilly, who heads global supply for Festo’s North American business.

But there’s not much demand locally these days for the kind of repetitive tasks done in those factories by workers such as Herbie Mays.

He acknowledged that there are “plenty of jobs out here.

“What you have to do is get training or education.”

We agree. The on-the-ground experience demonstrates the growing importance of receiving a postsecondary certification or some college education.