From the Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, W.Va., on a skills gap in new manufacturing jobs:
Automation and robotics can be frightening words for some American workers, and understandably so.
Smarter, computerized equipment has changed the workplace — and manufacturing in particular — worldwide. But those machines perform functions that people once did, and many of the “factory jobs” we remember from decades past have gone away.
In their place are new jobs — jobs that often require skills that much of today’s workforce does not have.
American manufacturers have actually added nearly a million jobs in the past seven years, according a special report by The Associated Press, and labor statistics show almost 390,000 such jobs are open right now. In fact, experts say it will not be easy to fill the 2 million new American manufacturing jobs that are forecast over the next decade because of the “skills gap.”
Rather than putting the pieces together themselves, today’s manufacturing workers are often running or troubleshooting computer-directed machinery. Even warehouse and transportation jobs require complex computer programs that keep track of pricing, shipping and inventory.
“There are more computers on the manufacturing floor than machine tools and other types of equipment,” Siemens USA CEO Judy Marks told AP. Her company employs 7,500 software developers – nearly 15 percent of its U.S. workforce.
The same transition is going on around the world, but the United States “trails virtually all its industrial competitors in public and private spending on training,” said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance of American Manufacturing.
It is in everyone’s interest to change that.
We need to retrain older workers and make sure younger workers are getting the education and developing the skills that will help them fill these new jobs and hold on to them as technology continues to change.
That is going to require investment and participation. West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky all have strong community and technical college networks, but too few students take advantage of those training opportunities. Community college enrollment in West Virginia has actually declined in recent years.
Our states have retraining programs for older workers, but considering the scope of the problem, the programs are fairly small, and again, many of those who need the help do not participate.
But as U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said recently, “we’re not going to see the kind of manufacturing renaissance that we all want in this country unless we focus on skills training.”