We hear a lot about the skills gap that exists in manufacturing today. The lack of skilled machinists, welders, machine technicians, processing technicians, and people who can troubleshoot machine tools and molding presses are putting companies in a bind, making some think that even if manufacturing does come back to the U.S. we won’t be able to support it.
So what is behind this skills gap that has manufacturers gnawing their fingers even as some industry segments are picking up steam? College. Yes, you heard it—college. That’s what a molder said to me recently. So I got to thinking about that and decided he had a point.
Back when my father was a teenager only really wealthy people went to college and they went there to become scientists, doctors, lawyers, and engineers. My dad was the son of a manager of a tool and die company near Cincinnati, so it was expected that he would one day get a job at the same tool and die company. He graduated from high school, got into the apprenticeship program at this company and learned all the skills of a tool and die maker including blueprint reading and machine tool operation (such as feeds and speeds), and became a journeyman tool and die maker.
All of his friends worked in manufacturing in the Cincinnati area, too, at big companies like Cincinnati Milacron, General Electric, and Ford. My dad loved manufacturing. He loved it so much that he had a woodworking shop in an old barn on our property and at night and on weekends, he made grandfather clocks and other beautiful pieces of artwork.
After he took early retirement from the company, he started his own tool and die company—against the advice of his father, who believed that working for someone else was less risky than working for yourself. Within 10 years had built a company that occupied three adjoining buildings comprising 30,000 square feet and had 70 employees.
The "everyone must go to college or they can’t be successful" fad started in about the 1960s. The Vietnam War was a good reason for many of the guys in my high school graduating class to get into college. The push for everyone to go to college continued throughout the remainder of the 20th century, until by the 1990s, high schools no longer had classes like “shop,” where metal- and wood-working skills were taught, and there began to be a vacuum in manufacturing for certain skills.
The move to offshore our manufacturing to China started getting traction about that time as well, but no one thought it would get as big as it did. The more young people were pushed into college—whether they really wanted that Liberal Arts degree or not—the wider the skills gap became. But it didn’t matter. Everything was being made in China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, and other developing nations. Let those people learn the skills and have the manufacturing jobs. Our country would thrive on service jobs, and professions like law, social work, accounting, and psychology.
One day, we suddenly woke up and saw that not only was our manufacturing disappearing at a rapid rate, but so were the manufacturing skills needed to keep it going. Now there’s talk of resurgence in manufacturing, and a big worry among manufacturers that we’ve lost the skills that it will take to restore what made America great.
The fact that older people took early retirement when many of the manufacturers began closing U.S. operations exacerbated the problem: there’s no one to train the younger people—to pass along that "tribal knowledge"—even if they are interested in making things. Apprenticeship programs have waned, and are only just now beginning to come back to life as the metal-working industry—including mold manufacturing—tries to play catch-up.
There might be some good news however. Reports show that college is becoming so expensive that many young people won’t be able to afford it. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe many of these young people will start hearing about manufacturing and the good jobs available for those who want to learn how to operate machinery, program machine tools, design parts and molds to make those parts, integrate automation, repair machinery, and many of the other kinds of good-paying jobs available.
Just maybe it’s the colleges' and universities' turn to suffer from lack of young people, many of whom can no longer afford to spend four years (or more) taking classes that sometimes result in them having to take minimum wage service jobs because they really don’t know how to do anything that creates actual wealth. As my dad always said, “Creating things creates wealth.”
My dad brought home $18 a week when he began his apprenticeship at 18 years of age. When he died in 2002, he had not only created wealth for my mother and ultimately for his heirs, but for a lot of other skilled people who worked for him. He took the risks and reaped the rewards. He trained a lot of young people over the years (including my oldest son, who, by the way, eventually did go to college and got a degree in manufacturing engineering) because he believed in manufacturing as the path to success.
College is highly overrated for many young people for whom learning manufacturing skills could result in them having more than they’d even dreamed of in life. That certainly was true for my dad. I know it’s still true for others. We just need to get the word out about what is possible so that manufacturing—as it returns—can once again thrive and sustain the U.S. economy and the U.S. worker.