A labor shortage? In this economy?

by Jim May

CNBC is running a story today that features several of our clients talking about their experiences butting up against the skilled labor shortage in the US. (Here, if you’re interested.) With unemployment where it’s been for the past 3 years, you’d think this topic would have gained a lot of traction by now, but it seems most people haven’t even heard about it, hence the title of this entry. Even among those who have, a fair number refuse to believe it. I participate in several online forums from time to time and got sucked into a discussion thread on the economy after a story similar to today’s ran on the national news several months ago. The relevant exchange, which was among a typically sharp group of individuals with diverse backgrounds, education levels and political persuasions, went something like this:

General Consensus: We can’t believe the news has the nerve to run stories about a labor shortage when unemployment’s so high. It’s obviously just spin from the government and companies that are offshoring jobs.

Me: My job puts me in close contact with a lot of American manufacturers and the skilled labor shortage is quite real and was discussed for years prior to the recession.

General Consensus: Nonsense. Maybe there’s a shortage of people willing to try to support their family on minimum wage and work for the peanuts people are paid in other countries.

Me: Actually, skilled manufacturing jobs pay quite well and people who excel in them can demand a premium right now.

General Consensus: You’re full of it. We all know people who were in manufacturing and had their jobs outsourced by employers who gave uneducated foreign workers an afternoon’s worth of training and pay them $1 an hour.

And there’s part of the problem with the public’s perception. When companies talk about skilled labor, they’re not referring to skills that can be picked up in an afternoon, or even a week or month of training. There are plenty of jobs for CNC programmers and operators, welders and other similar or related roles. When people bemoan the loss of manufacturing jobs, they’re often talking about unskilled jobs that anyone can do with little to no knowledge. And they’re right when they think that most of those jobs are gone for good. Their mistake is in not differentiating that type of work from the reality of what manufacturing in the US currently entails.

Of course, a large part of the issue also stems from decades of parents wanting their children to do ‘better’ than ending up with a manufacturing job. How many writers for TV shows and movies use shop class as lazy shorthand for a kid being dumber than his or her peers? And what parent would want their son or daughter to take such a path? In reality, though, today’s manufacturing jobs usually feature clean workplaces and require math and computer expertise that far surpasses what most of us are walking around with. And they do pay quite well.

So if you’re a parent, grandparent, high school teacher or in another position of influence over a high school kid, do them a favor and help them make an informed choice for their career instead of reinforcing outdated biases. I’m sure a local shop would be glad to have you bring them in to see what US manufacturing is like today. Taking advantage of such an opportunity might just spur an interest that leads them to a long and profitable career in an industry with high workforce demand.

1 Comment
  • Nick Bloom

    April 18, 2012 at 7:38 pm Reply

    What manufacturing needs is a good PR firm. Jim, you are correct. “Finding qualified labor” is THE single greatest challenge threatening the success of manufacturing businesses today, and has been for most of the last 10 or more years. As well as you laid out your position in this article, maybe dgs should consider pitching a campaign to Hilda Solis, the Secretary of Labor. Do you not think that our government wouldn’t be interested in a campaign which could employ 800,000 people in good paying jobs tomorrow? Sure, there’s more to it then just calling attention to the problem. But we’ve got to start somewhere. Sadly, marketing is partially responsible for filling everybody’s heads with romantic visions of professional sports, acting, and mega-millionaire careers for the masses. And if advertising messed it up, I’m convinced, good marketing can fix it.

Post a Comment