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Finding a Skilled Manufacturing Workforce: Looming Crisis or Huge Opportunity?

Kennith ScottBy Kennith Scott, Training Specialist

It was the fall of 2002 when I stepped off the hull of the USS Georgia and onto the pier at the submarine naval base in Bangor, Washington. I had completed the requirements of my enlistment, and having chosen a naval program featuring two years of technical training in nuclear power, chemistry, and the mechanical knowledge of a naval Machinist Mate, I was certain my path was well paved for success.

Today manufacturing has not died in America; as a matter of fact, it is on the rise! The Manufacturing Report on Business, published by Institute for Supply Management, just reported on August 1, 2014, manufacturing is expanding at the fastest pace in three years. Manufacturers should be happy with this current trend, right? The short answer is yes. Most manufacturers would agree an increase in demand for American manufacturing is a good trend, but at the same time they are struggling to rebuild the workforce they let go over the last decade. During those rough times when workers had to be let go, many companies did the right thing by offering early retirement packages. This means that the skilled workers are now enjoying retirement, not available for re-employment. But this is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

A report from August of 2013 by the Workforce Development Agency on the “Aging Workforce in Manufacturing” summarizes the rest of the iceberg. To cite a couple of the striking statistics: 21% of machinists are now 56 years or older and 56% are 46 years or older. In some cases the numbers are even more startling; 28% of tool and die makers are 56 years or older and 67% are 46 years or older.

This is only half of the problem for manufacturers; at the same time, manufacturers are having trouble filling the positions they currently have posted. It is something of a perfect storm for them — increasing demand coupled with a quickly retiring workforce and an apparent lack of qualified candidates to meet their needs.

The silver lining of this looming crisis is a huge opportunity. The Michigan unemployment rate was at 7.7% as of July 2014 which indicates there is a sufficient pool of workers from which to draw. Additionally, manufacturers still have a large percentage of highly experienced skilled tradesmen to teach and mentor entry-level workers. The resources are available; the only thing missing is a pipeline to connect the two.

Developing this pipeline of skilled employees for manufacturers will require the engagement and coordination of diverse community stakeholders. It will require a concerted effort to increase community awareness of manufacturing job opportunities that do exist here in our community. It will require a unified voice from manufacturers as to what specific skills and trades are in highest demand for the region and a unified commitment to accept and train entry-level candidates. It will require educational institutions such as NMC and TCAPS to align their training and technical education programs to meet identified needs. But most importantly, it will require the Baby Boomer generation of skilled workers to embrace the roll of trainer and mentor.

As we move forward, stay tuned for opportunities to work together to rise to this challenge. Northwestern Michigan College’s Training Services, in collaboration with various area manufacturers, is hosting a Manufacturing Day scheduled for Friday, October 3, 2014, at NMC’s Parsons-Stulen Building. This event will provide information to individuals thinking of pursuing a career in the manufacturing sector. In addition, a Manufacturing Summit will be held on November 5, 2014, at the Hagerty Center to help facilitate a unified voice from manufacturers.

If you are interested in helping our community take advantage of this unique opportunity, please contact me at or (231) 995-2212.

Kennith Scott, Training Specialist
Northwestern Michigan College
1701 East Front Street, Traverse City, MI 49686
(231) 995-2212

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