Much is being written lately about American manufacturing, which of course includes plastics, America’s third largest manufacturing sector. However, the analysis, opinions, and forecasts are far from unanimous. Many analysts say U.S. manufacturing is making a comeback, or is on the verge of a comeback, with reshoring of previously offshored work helping the efforts.
But you are just as likely to see or hear that the uptick in American manufacturing is a glitch, just part of a reflex-like rebound from the recession of 2008-2009, that there are serious obstacles to a major recovery, and that the U.S. is unlikely to ever recover its prominence as a maker of things.
One of the most frequently mentioned obstacles is a lack of skilled workers in the USA. Several recent studies put the number of jobs going unfilled due to employers not being able to find people with the needed skills at about half a million, and probably more. They are not talking about graduate engineers, though they too are scarce, but shop floor, hands-on machine operators, maintenance specialists, and machinists.
The ManpowerGroup’s 2012 Annual Talent Shortage Survey found 33 percent of U.S. employers have difficulty finding skilled workers, an increase from 24 percent in the 2011 survey. The Survey revealed that the 10 hardest jobs to fill are, in order of difficulty: skilled trades, engineers, IT staff, sales reps, accounting/finance staff, drivers, mechanics, nurses, machinists/machine operators, and teachers.
The so-called skills gap could either stop a manufacturing renaissance or slow it down significantly. The good news is that solutions are developing. For example, the federal government is supporting creation of centers for manufacturing excellence around the country, and plastics manufacturers and others are working with educational institutions such as community colleges to give workers the skills they need.
One solution, however, deserves more attention. “The central answer to the mismatch between jobs and employment is a 21st-century apprenticeship program,” according to a recent article in the Washington Post. The authors, Stuart E. Eizenstat, chief domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter and undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, and Robert I. Lerman, an economics professor at American University and a fellow at the Urban Institute, make a strong case for apprenticeships.
There are a number of existing manufacturing apprenticeship programs in operation, but with about half a million jobs open that can’t be filled, more are needed. The article points out that 55 to 70 percent of all young people in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland enter apprenticeships. To be sure, those countries have long traditions of guilds and craftwork and you could say apprenticeships are in their culture. But in Australia apprenticeships have tripled since 1996, and in England they have increased by a factor of 10 since 1990 to more than 500,000 participants last year.
As a plastics industry journalist in Europe, I visited numerous plastics processing facilities, and I saw apprentices at work in many of them, particularly in Germany. Those training programs are as normal and common there as they are rare and unusual in the USA. Top managers of the processing companies told me the apprentice programs are virtually always three-way partnerships among government, education, and the manufacturer — and they always spoke of the program and its results positively. I recall one manager, puzzled by my questions about the apprentice system, stopped for a moment and then told me, in a serious tone, that those youngsters were the future of his company.
My interviews were almost always at small to medium plastics processing companies, almost all plastics molders and moldmakers. The larger companies also have apprentice programs. In every case, the managers emphasized that the learning was absolutely practical, based on the specifics of processing plastics and toolmaking. They stressed how, following a brief startup period, the apprentices did real work that the company needed, not made-up training exercises. The learning provided by the educational institution likewise was driven by what the apprentices would be doing following their training. The keyword for the apprentice training is practical.
Manufacturing accounts for 20 percent of all German jobs, despite a high level of automation. Manufacturing is about 10 percent of the U.S. workforce. Germany as a country is strongly focused on exports and regularly enjoys a trade surplus. By contrast, America’s large trade deficit seems to have become a permanent part of economic reports.
Making apprenticeships an effective component of U.S. manufacturing will require a cultural shift. Eizenstat and Lerman note that government in America spends more than $300 billion on colleges and universities, while its outlays for apprenticeship programs are less than $40 million. Many Americans believe that a college diploma is essential to success, that production facilities are terrible workplaces, and that a career in manufacturing lacks prestige and is not financially rewarding.
As everyone in manufacturing knows, the truth is quite the opposite. The apprentice graduates with a sense of pride and the identity that comes with joining an occupational group. And the financial considerations are very different. Unlike a full-time student, the apprentice earns money while learning and training, does not accumulate what increasingly is a heavy burden of student loan debt, has not been unemployed, and most likely will not be.