Can We Work Together to Address the Skills Gap?

Originally titled 'Can We Work Together?'

Governments, educational institutions and businesses must work together toward a common goal to change the manufacturing industry.

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Do you ever get the feeling that something is “off,” but you can’t quite put your finger on the problem or how to fix it? Welcome to the skills gap. We all know there is an issue, and we have a vague a sense of what to do about it, but we can’t seem to coordinate our efforts into a specific direction. All of us—the government, companies and schools—are throwing resources at the problem without a unifying plan. It’s chaos, and what’s truly heartbreaking is that if we got together and hammered out a plan, our companies and our country would be so much more successful.

I’ve spoken about this before, but when it comes to the skills gap, our problems stem from the following four areas:

  1. Poor or misguided government funding of skills education.
  2. Educational institutions teaching outdated skills.
  3. Employers not investing in technologies to increase their employees’ productivity and skills.
  4. Employers failing to invest in employees and apprentices.

Let’s start with governments. I really believe that governments are having a tough time allocating and directing money to the right resources. They don’t know what is needed to create skilled workers. In many cases, there is such a demand for resources (money) that each educational institution only receives enough funding to keep it going, but not enough to allow it to produce the skilled graduates and employees we need. However, if the government focused on using these resources to create more centers of excellence, then we could begin to address the lack of skilled workers properly. Generating success from this method would give governments the support and justification they need to then scale up the programs, which would translate to less criticism from people and organizations regarding this effort.

The next area is a big one for me. It is a topic I’ve written and spoken about extensively. Educational institutions are teaching outdated skills, and when they update programs, the updates they make are already 10 years old. Some of the things they are teaching are basically the equivalent of teaching typesetting on a Gutenberg printing press. Sure, it’s neat and may help you win a memory game, but this skill is not practical in today’s manufacturing environment. I can’t even begin to count the number of outdated skills that are being taught in today’s institutions. By teaching outdated skills, graduates from these programs are barely useful to companies that want to be globally competitive. Are you asking, “What can we do?” yet? Even if you are not, we need to spend more time promoting and changing curriculums so students spend more time on current and future skills. It is the only path to success.

The skills gap is a threefold issue, meaning employers are not without fault. Over the years, I’ve walked into countless machine shops that could double as museums of past technology. They are running equipment that was new 30 to 40 years ago. Need I say more? These technologies are just as effective as that Gutenberg I was talking about. Sure, old technologies can be useful, but in an industry in which there has been so much advancement, they are obsolete. Now, I am sure these companies have some reason for ignoring modern technology, but the fact is that by refusing to embrace more productive technologies, they are hurting their employees and their businesses. By purchasing new equipment, companies are actively investing in their employees. They are giving them the tools they need to learn while increasing their productivity and skillset. Companies get higher outputs, higher returns and highly skilled employees. Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?

The last issue I am going to touch on is the lack of employers investing in apprenticeships. Why have so many companies reduced or abandoned these programs? Employers seem to believe that if they train employees, they will leave for other companies that offer more money. This belief is a significant reason for the lack of skilled workers. It tells me two things: First, no one wants to take the initiative to train, and second, there is an extreme lack of confidence by the employer toward the employee. I really believe that if employees are treated right, they will not easily leave, especially if the employer creates an atmosphere of continuous change and learning. We need to stop cowering in fear that good employees might leave us. Instead, we should focus on create a culture they want to be a part of.

The solution? We need to start working toward a common goal, and once all three parties do, the entire industry will change. Governments will invest in the right programs, educational institutions will create programs to teach the right skills and employers will invest in tools and equipment that enable employees to be more productive. Businesses will create a culture of training. I think it will work, but the only question now is, can we work together?