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Manufacturers Strive to Close the Skills Gap

NAM logoSenior executives from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) member companies joined former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) at an event in Washington, D.C., at the end of March, titled “Filling the Skills Gap in Manufacturing: The Untapped Resource,” sponsored by the Aspen Institute in partnership with the Association for Women in Science and the Bertelsmann Foundation.

While the United States is experiencing a manufacturing comeback thanks to new investments, groundbreaking innovations and game-changing energy resources, there are, however, issues that threaten manufacturers’ progress. One of the most widely acknowledged threats to this comeback is the skills gap, which has left hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs unfilled.

Manufacturers need a skilled workforce to compete in the 21st-century economy, but the skills gap undercuts America’s competitiveness. The available pool of manufacturing workers is not meeting the needs of employers.

While women represent nearly half (46.6 percent) of the total U.S. labor force, they comprise only one-quarter (24.8 percent) of the advanced manufacturing workforce. The proportion of women in leadership roles in manufacturing companies also lags behind other U.S. industries. Women represent manufacturing’s largest pool of untapped talent.

The panel discussion focused on best practices to interest more young girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), bring more women into the manufacturing sector and keep them there.

“It’s not good enough to tell a young girl she is good at math and science, and so she should go into engineering,” said panelist Karen Fletcher, vice president of DuPont Engineering and chief engineer of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. “We need to change the conversation and connect engineering to improving the quality of life for people everywhere.”

Fletcher added, “The problems we face are increasingly complex, so we need a pipeline of people who not only have strong technical skills, but the ability to collaborate, creatively solve problems and communicate those solutions well.”

Sen. Lincoln emphasized how important it is to “start early to encourage more young girls to follow their interests in these fields. Make sure manufacturing companies are workplaces organized to support women’s success. Women lead differently and have unique work-life challenges, particularly women with young children. Workplace flexibility and programs to support women through different phases in their personal lives will be critical to retaining female-talent long term.”

Antoinette Leatherberry, principal of Deloitte Consulting LLP, spoke about a study by Deloitte and the NAM’s education arm, The Manufacturing Institute, showing that while 90 percent of those polled believe manufacturing is important or very important to our economic prosperity, manufacturing ranks low as a career choice among 18–24 year olds.

The Aspen Institute event is just one of many ways that manufacturers are addressing the skills gap. In October, Caterpillar Chairman and CEO and NAM Board Chair Doug Oberhelman announced the formation of a task force of business and manufacturing leaders to tackle the workforce challenges facing manufacturers. The Task Force on Competitiveness & the Workforce, led by GE Appliances President and CEO Chip Blankenship, comprises 17 members from the NAM’s Board of Directors. The task force is committed to working with policymakers to find solutions that will develop the workforce that meets the needs of modern manufacturing.

Three of the most pressing workforce challenges the task force is addressing include the mounting skills gap between the preparedness of workers and the capabilities that manufacturers need, an aging manufacturing workforce that is nearing widespread retirement and the scarcity of graduates in the STEM fields.

Manufacturers’ strong commitment to workforce development drives the work of The Manufacturing Institute, a leader in closing the skills gap. The Institute has many programs in place to put more Americans on the path to manufacturing careers. An important part of the Institute’s strategy is closing the gender gap in the manufacturing workforce.

Last month, the Institute recognized 160 women (including NAHAD Member Judy Wojanis, president of Wojanis Supply Company) who have defied the gender gap and demonstrated excellence at all levels of manufacturing. From the shop floor to the C-suite, these women are committed to improving their companies’ bottom lines. 

At the STEP (Science, Technology, Engineering and Production) Awards ceremony, the Institute announced the launch of a new mentorship program, partnering with the National Girls Collaborative Project. This partnership will support girl-serving STEM organizations across the United States to change perceptions of the manufacturing industry and create new opportunities for women in the sector.

“This partnership is an exciting step forward to change perceptions of the manufacturing industry and encourage female talent,” said Manufacturing Institute President Jennifer McNelly. “We all have a role to play in ensuring our nation’s competitiveness through our commitment to manufacturing. We must empower each other as ambassadors of the industry we love so we can inspire the next generation of talent to pursue manufacturing careers and encourage current female talent within the industry.”

“Manufacturing has a place for everyone,” said NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons. “Modern manufacturing offers high-paying, long-term careers. It’s a high-tech, sleek industry. It’s time to close the skills gap and develop the next generation of the manufacturing workforce.”

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