In September, 238,000 American jobs went unfilled, despite employers’ best efforts. At the same time, unemployment was at 7.8 percent nationally. And believe it or not, this was no statistical oddity.
The manufacturing sector has long had trouble finding skilled applicants for its jobs. Around 48 percent of manufacturing companies are looking to hire, according to the most recent report from ThomasNet, a company that helps connect producers and suppliers. But 67 percent of manufacturing companies see a moderate to severe shortage of skilled workers, and last year, as many as 600,000 jobs went unfilled, according to a report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.
This mismatch embodies the best and worst of American culture. On the one hand, American manufacturers have bested their international competition, becoming even more efficient after their recent struggles. On the other, there’s been a cultural shift that denigrates the value of manufacturing work, instead pushing young people into ever more impractical fields of study.
The manufacturing sector’s triumph is pretty remarkable. The U.S. is the world’s largest manufacturer, contributing 18.2 percent of the total value added in worldwide production. (China, despite its abundance of cheap labor, comes in second at 17.6 percent.) Though other sectors are panicking about a fiscal cliff and putting expansion on hold, American manufacturing is plowing ahead. Ninety percent of manufacturers told ThomasNet they’re optimistic about the future, and 75 percent planned to expand their operations this year.
The manufacturing sector is also almost uniquely good to its employees. “No longer dirty, dark, or dangerous” has become an industry catchphrase. Careers in manufacturing are not, contrary to popular belief, merely monotonous assembly-line work; today, workers have to be good at problem solving, abstract thinking, and technology. And the pay is good. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a manufacturing worker makes an average of $23.97 on hour as of October 2012. Manufacturing jobs are also more likely to come with good benefits than jobs in other industries, the Brookings Institute has reported. Furthermore, the manufacturing sector offers high-pay positions for people with low educational attainment; one manufacturing firm told National Review Online that it would pay a $54,000 starting salary to a high-school graduate who could competently repair and maintain machinery.
These job perks are partly caused by demand. Older manufacturing workers are retiring fast, and the work has become more high-tech, says Thomas Holdsworth, a spokesman for SkillsUSA, an organization that provides training for high school and college students. SkillsUSA works closely with the manufacturing sector, connecting it with prospective workers.
“We hear about skill shortage and skill gap,” Holdsworth explained. “Manufacturers say . . . ‘We have a shortage of workers, a shortage of people coming into our profession.’”
The skilled-worker shortage is an education problem. High schools have cut their shop classes, and students are pushed to attain at least a four-year college degree, no matter the major, says Linda Rigano, spokesperson for ThomasNet.
In high schools, “there’s been such a focus on — and this is going to sound terrible — kids going to school,” she said. “Not every kid is meant to go to college.” Meanwhile, manufacturing companies “are paying six figures. You’ve got all these kids who are coming out of college, and they can’t find a job. It’s heartbreaking.”
Young people are told that a four-year college degree is a minimal requirement for career success, but the numbers simply don’t bear this out.
Michigan State University’s 2012–13 Report on Recruiting Trends found that the labor market for new college graduates grew only 3 percent last year — but demand for graduates with associate’s degrees is up 31 percent. Nevertheless, in the last year on record, the U.S. handed out around 2.5 million bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees — and a mere 849,000 associate’s degrees, according to the Department of Education. And during the recession, students with associate’s degrees in career and technical fields had a higher employment rate than students with four-year academic degrees.
High-schoolers aren’t being taught about how marketable they may be in manufacturing. Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute found last year that “among 18- to 24-year-olds, manufacturing ranks dead last among industries which they would choose to stat their careers.” Likewise, this year, Deloitte reported that only 35 percent of American parents would encourage their kids to consider a manufacturing job.
This means that most college students graduate without the skills they need to find a good job, says Greg Rintala, who heads up sales and education for Snap-on Tool Corporation, which produces hand tools for everything from cars to space stations. Not only do these students lack a vocation; many also can’t write or do basic math.
“Parents are making their kids go to college,” Rintala said. “College doesn’t equip them for anything but a liberal-arts degree and how to be a barista anymore. . . . There’s a lot of people out there with college degrees who just can’t find a job. They just don’t have the skills.”
If there’s been a cultural shift away from manufacturing and toward academic achievement, look to the government, says Lindsey Burke, Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation.
“So much of it is the continued push to increase federal subsidies to incentivize students to go get a four-year degree when it might not be the right fit,” she said.
The federal government has made access to student loans easier than ever before. Since 1982, the number of federal education subsidies and Pell grants has increased by 475 percent, Burke said. Programs once targeted at increasing the number of low-income students have been expanded to include many middle-class children. That’s driven up college costs, saddled graduates with high debt, and deflated the value of a four-year degree. Furthermore, many in the manufacturing sector say, it’s made young people turn up their noses at good manufacturing jobs.
Meanwhile, the manufacturing sector is adjusting, trying to come up with private-sector solutions, says Tracy Tenpenney, vice president of sales and marketing at Tailored Label Products, a Wisconsin-based company that manufactures stickers for everything from biomedical supplies to outdoor power equipment.
Tailored Label Products participates in the local Second Chance program, which works with high-school sophomores who have fallen behind track for graduation. Tailored Label Products holds classes for these students on its premises and sponsors some of them. The kids spend two hours in formal classes, then spend six hours working with a local manufacturer and learning the trade. Many Second Chance students end up graduating on time after all, leaving not only with a diploma but also with marketable skills — and sometimes a job. This year, Tailored Label Products is funding a college scholarship for a Second Chance alumnus to attend a local trade school.
“I think people are assuming kids aren’t attracted to manufacturing,” Tenpenney said. “I firmly believe that kids are attracted to being employed coming out.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.