Monday, May 9, 2011

End educational turf wars to foster skilled workers

In an article entitled, "Help Wanted on the Factory Floor," by James R. Hagerty, appearing May 6th on the Wall Street Journal Digital Network, the author cites three factors that are causing the shortage of factory floor workers in the US. First is the remarkable growth in employment numbers for the last seven months. In seeming contrast to all the gloom and doom on the unemployment front for the past few years, US companies roared out of the recession, loaded for bear with a lean manufacturing team. Nice scenario, but they got caught in a dilemma as orders rolled in at an unexpected pace, which these companies were unprepared to handle with current staffing.

The second factor, baby boomer retirements, is starting to impact companies as their most experienced and productive workers are opting out for the “good” life. Hagerty says 25% of US manufacturing workers are 55 or older.

And finally, he, like many others, faults the US education systems for neglecting to nurture the skills that modern factory jobs require: math, science, and computer programming.

Of these factors, one, education, could have been corrected years ago. Job growth in the industrial market is a phenomenon. After two decades of reductions in factory employment, the US lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs that will never be offset by employment blips such at we are now experiencing. Just drive around Michigan if you need an object lesson.

Yes, the baby boomer retirements on top of this will make manufacturing a bright spot on the employment scene, but this is not the cause for the lack of employable young people in what is left of the US manufacturing base.

I personally have been involved with the “technical education” problem for several decades. I got involved with a southern state educational system as it moved to lay a base for trained technical workers to serve relocating industry. And as president of the Laser Institute of America, I dedicated my term to fostering support of the nation’s secondary schools offering laser processing curricula. And I was enmeshed in a political tug-of-war at a state university that missed an opportunity to become a leader in industrial laser material processing education. There, I ran into one of the most hierarchal and entrenched groups: professional educational administrators.

In this example, as the department head I was advising struggled with an academic turf war, I used to ask, “Who is representing the students in these discussions?” It got so bad that when he and I went to the faculty club for lunch, we were made to wait or if we were lucky, we were led to a table near the kitchen door.

After years of observing how other countries approached the same educational situation, I remain more convinced that we here in the US talk a good game but rarely follow through with positive action. I have heard and read about the same problems finding trained skilled employees for decades and Hagerty’s examples could have applied 30 years ago.It’s great to acknowledge a problem in our educational systems but when solutions are bogged down by internal territorial protection policies, then we should address that problem first.

I am very impressed with the community college programs I have witnessed in the states that are attracting new industry. Administrators at these colleges, backed by state educational programs, are tuned into the needs of local industry and follow through by initiating new programs to supply the needed employees. I have met several enlightened and committed administrators of these programs who place students first. It's one bright light I see to alleviate the lack of skilled employees.

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