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Perspectives on understanding—and closing—the skills gap

Manufacturing’s biggest challenge isn’t cheap foreign competition—it’s the high school counselor. We do a poor job of teaching our young generation about the opportunities in manufacturing, according to Brian Fortney, Global Business Manager for Rockwell Automation (Milwaukee, WI).

We hear a lot about the skills gap, as manufacturing grapples with a shortage of skilled labor. There are actually three problems when it comes to understanding and closing the workforce skills gap, according to Brian Fortney, Global Business Manager for Rockwell Automation (Milwaukee, WI). He will be participating in a panel discussion on this topic at the Advanced Design & Manufacturing (ADM) Expo in Cleveland, OH, on March 7 and 8, and shared with PlasticsToday some of his insights ahead of the event.

The three problems manufacturing faces today with regard to the skills gap are, first, a workforce that is not adequately prepared for the demands of Industry 4.0, the next industrial revolution. “We have high tech jobs available, but not the people with the skills to do these jobs,” said Fortney.

Second, there’s “a rabid skills shortage” in the United States—and globally—that can only be solved by augmentation. “Manufacturers you hear about that contract resources do so because the reality is they can’t find the talent they want,” explained Fortney. To help satisfy this demand, Rockwell Automation has partnered with Manpower Group to launch the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing. This joint effort will provide 1,000 military veterans per year with the skills to succeed in advanced manufacturing roles.

“We take their base skills and add training over 12 weeks and place them on a preferred basis. This is a passion project from our CEO. We have veterans that can take their skill sets and transfer them into an industrial environment,” said Fortney.

The third problem is a “skills funnel,” said Fortney. “This impacts long-term competitiveness in North America. It’s not foreign cost competition that is our biggest challenge—it is the high school counselor. We do a poor job of teaching our young generation about manufacturing. There’s a significant positive opportunity for an individual to build a very good life in the manufacturing environment using all the skill sets that are needed in manufacturing 4.0.

Brian Fortney, Global Business Manager for Rockwell Automation, will join a group of panelists to discuss how to close the skills gap at the Advanced Design & Manufacturing (ADM) Expo in Cleveland. The panel discussion is scheduled for March 7 at 3:15 PM. ADM Expo, which runs March 7 and 8, 2018, features five zones on the show floor—medical manufacturing, plastics, packaging, automation and robotics, and design and manufacturing. A full slate of conference sessions will explore innovations in advanced manufacturing. Go to the ADM Cleveland website to learn more and to register to attend.

“We have to think about how to leverage educational institutions to gain support for this,” said Fortney. Education and manufacturing as a whole need to reframe the story of what manufacturing is and what modern-day manufacturing has to offer as a career—the amazing ability to be innovative. We need to “funnel young people through educational ports to individual manufacturers working with educational institutions to reduce the shortage,” said Fortney.

Fortney finds it interesting that some people perceive the skills gap to be a problem, whereas others don’t. “When does something become a problem? When it causes pain for them,” he said. “What we say are problems aren’t necessarily the things we invest in.”

While some say that automation is taking jobs away from people, Fortney sees automaton as a solution because it is creating jobs. “It’s just that those new jobs are different jobs,” he said. “They are higher tech jobs involving a higher level of education. But they are also higher paying jobs that will endure. Production has changed over time—as we’ve seen, manual production went away, [and] it won’t come back. Jobs involving automation will last longer and provide stability.”

Manufacturing jobs evolve over time, and change is hard for many people. “The skills shortage is an outcome of that,” said Fortney. “If automation was not a driver of jobs, there wouldn’t be a skills gap or skills shortage, and studies are very clear on the great need for these high-tech jobs. The time is now to help solve the workforce skills gap, and we’ve got a great story to tell.”

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