Sponsored By
Clare Goldsberry

September 2, 2016

4 Min Read
Is the skills gap a myth?

The skills gap has been a hot topic in manufacturing for the past few years, but a recent study suggests that it is not rooted in reality. According to a paper published in ILR Review, “Skills Gap for US Manufacturing Workers Mostly a Myth,all the talk of job vacancies and lack of qualified workers is overstated. The paper, co-written by a University of Illinois expert in labor economics and workforce policy, Andrew Weaver, finds that, in actuality, the demand for high-level skills is “generally modest.”

Image courtesy Stuart Miles/
freedigitalphotos.net.

According to Weaver, there is a mismatch in the data sets causing confusion and “often don’t involve the direct measurement of skills, so people are looking at vacancy rates across the economy” and not just at the manufacturing level. “There’s very little data in which people go [to] the plant and measure what skills U.S. workers need to have,” he said.

While many consultancies and academic personnel focus on a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, many other skills also are essential, such as higher reading skills. 

Another paper, “Manufacturing Skills and Mismatch,” calls for better data to prove that a skills gap in manufacturing actually exists. “In a 2011 survey, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), in conjunction with Deloitte, concluded that ‘as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled’ even in the face of an unemployment rate that at the time hovered around 9%,” notes the paper. “The same survey indicated that 67% of manufacturing respondents reported a ‘moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers.’ A full 74% reported that lack of skilled production workers had a ‘significant negative impact on [their] company’s ability to expand operations or improve productivity.’ The fact that such reports could emerge following a period where manufacturing employment declined by one third from 2000 to 2010—thus creating a reserve army of millions of trained manufacturing workers—begs the question of whether structural mismatch is to blame.”

That paper noted, with regard to extended skills, higher levels of reading and computing were the most “frequently demanded.” Only 38% of the establishments surveyed required “at least one of the extended math skills such as calculus or other advanced mathematics. After reading and math, computer capabilities were the most commonly required higher-level skill, with 28% of establishments requiring “core workers to be able to use “computer-aided design or manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software, while a similar percentage required the use of some other type of engineering or manufacturing software.”

While the skills gap debate focuses on the “hard” STEM-related skills, noted the report, there are “soft” skills that employers say are just as lacking and just as difficult to find. In the Aug. 30 issue of the Wall Street Journal, an article titled “Hard to Find: Workers with Good ‘Soft Skills’ ” looked at skills demanded by employers beyond the STEM focus. The article noted that in a recent LinkedIn survey of 291 hiring managers, 58% of respondents said the lack of soft skills among job candidates was limiting their company’s productivity.

The Wall Street Journal conducted a survey in 2015 and found that 92% said soft skills were “equally important or more important than technical skills. But 89% said they have a very or somewhat difficult time finding people with the requisite attributes. Many say it’s a problem spanning age groups and experience levels.”

While these “soft skills” (sometimes referred to as “people skills”) are most in demand in service industries in the retail sector and in restaurants, the Wall Street Journal survey found that across most industries the soft skills are critical, specifically “the ability to communicate trumped all else, followed by organization, capacity for teamwork, punctuality, critical thinking, social savvy, creativity and adaptability.”

In interviewing company owners and managers for various articles, I often hear the same comments about the difficulty of finding skilled people and I’ve noted that it has to do a lot with the soft skills. Working in teams is a big one. And, believe it or not, punctuality—just getting to work on time every day—seems to be an obstacle for many employees. One company owner once told me that a young man he hired was late to work at the mold shop almost every day. When the shop owner pulled him aside and asked him why he was late, he replied that he didn’t know he had to be at work at a certain time, and then inquired about a “flex” schedule. You can imagine how that went over for this mold shop owner!

While we keep talking about the skills gap in manufacturing—and in plastics processing and mold making—the hard skills are certainly getting more difficult to find as the baby boomer generation is staring at retirement. However, it’s often the soft skills that are lacking that stand in the way of employers being able to find the right people for the job. That just might be something that the academic community may want to think about as it prepares students for jobs in manufacturing.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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