It’s a problem that’s been years in the making and is expected to be years in the solving. It’s been a focus for industries, associations, politicos, academics and others. It has widespread ramifications for Utah’s economy.
It’s the shortfall in Utah manufacturers’ search for skilled workers.
“It’s definitely near the top of concerns,” said Todd R. Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association (UMA). “Obviously, the average age of someone in the manufacturing industry is 43 or 44 years old, and that’s significantly higher than we’d like to see it. With baby boomers retiring and the lack of individuals entering the manufacturing workforce, it’s going to be a challenge in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years to try and replace those individuals. It’s something that’s very highly ranked right now, and we’ve got to start moving the needle on filling the pipeline.”
Bingham said that nationally, about 250,000 manufacturing-type jobs need to be filled, ranging from those requiring four-year degrees, down through process automation to industrial maintenance to machinists to welders.
“For every engineer the industry hires, it needs another six to seven technician types of jobs for any type of manufacturing field, whether that be a process technician or a setup technician or something with automation,” he said. “And many of those [require] two-year degrees, technical types of degrees, or even four-year types of degrees.”
When visiting this summer with colleagues from 40 other manufacturing associations from across the country, he said, he discovered “we’re all in the exact same situation.”
But how did it all start? Bingham said that about two decades ago, the education system — perhaps unintentionally — veered away from technician and vocational tech training and toward a system giving students the idea that without a four-year degree, they would not get a “worthwhile” career.
“And that’s just simply not true,” he said. “In our industry, we need the engineers and we need the science degrees and we’ll continue to push for those, but for many of those students who don’t choose that as a career, there are lots of other avenues in the technical training arena.”
Now, he said, “we’re realizing that we need ‘all of the above’” because there are gaps in various trade positions and in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) positions.
“Some of it continues to be a discussion on generational differences and how do you motivate today’s youth to go into those degrees,” Bingham said. “Some of them just simple see it as being too difficult and are picking different avenues. As an industry, we’ve got to do a better job to recruit those kids.”
Make no mistake, the UMA is no lone voice crying for help. Plenty of other folks have spoken in recent years about Utah’s need for skilled, educated workers in a variety of industries, including manufacturing. A keen eye will notice that the push for a better-educated populace in Utah — Gov. Gary Herbert and others have a goal of having 66 percent of Utah’s adult workforce holding a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2020 — includes certificated and two-year degrees as well as four-year degrees.
This past spring, panelists at the Governor’s Economic Development Summit spoke about ways to boost the current figure, which is 43 percent. Matthew S. Holland, president of Utah Valley University, said that the public, with the help of the business community, must “speak, act and move in a way” to support institutions that provide four-year degrees but also “really enshrine, fund and complement and give respectability to those other degrees — the certificate, the two-year degrees, etc.”
Earlier this year, Lt. Gov. Greg Bell stressed that students considering college need to know that plenty of options exist, including attending applied technology colleges to get certifications that lead to high-paying jobs in manufacturing.
This summer, a legislative committee heard corporate executives testify that they cannot find enough Utahns skilled or trained for certain roles, especially in technical roles. A few said they must turn to out-of-staters because the available Utah talent pool lacks people with certain skills, whether it be expertise in specialized sciences or in skilled, hourly-paid manufacturing activities.
This spring, while speaking in Salt Lake City, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch pushed for using undocumented workers as a way to help U.S. companies fill their needs for skilled, advanced-degree employees because “at least right now, there are not enough Americans trained and ready to fill these jobs.” Allowing more skilled immigrant workers could give U.S. companies better access to the labor they need while giving the nation time to address the long-term need to invest in STEM education, he said.
Bingham used the analogy of a pipeline to describe how the skills gap and workforce development issues must be addressed. Rather than seeing it as an issue at the end of the pipeline, “you have to fix it by putting butts in seats at schools and filling the pipeline, which means changing the perception of today’s youth about what manufacturing is,” he said.
“If they don’t understand that manufacturing produces a [high] quality of life and that these are jobs that pay 28 percent higher than the average state wages, that these are living-wage jobs, then there’s no real interest for them as youth to come into the industry.”
In many ways, the issues will be addressed through education: teaching teachers and counselors about the realities of the industry, teaching students and their parents about opportunities there, and learning about what sparks the interests of students and parents.
The perception problem will be addressed over the next few years as the industry develops public relations and marketing campaigns targeted at high school students and even those in lower grades “to help them understand that this is not your grandfather’s manufacturing industry,” Bingham said.
“Without changing what that perception is — both the students’ and the parents’ — we’re not going to fill the pipeline. And if we don’t increase the number of students going into the pipeline, we’re going to have the same problem over the next 15 to 20 years, which is, yeah, we’re putting kids out of the pipeline; we’re just not putting enough of them out.”
In a similar vein, some students are worried that every manufacturing position requires so much math “that we’re kind of scaring them off a little bit,” he said.
Students also need to realize that manufacturing-related degrees have “marketplace relevance,” Bingham said. Parents and students need to understand that that’s where the opportunities are, he said.
“Students need to do what they love, no question, but we need to focus on degrees with marketplace relevance, and many of those are in manufacturing.
“The degrees we’re looking at, in some ways there has been a lot of discussion that these are just low-tech degrees, and that is not true. … We need degrees from top to bottom. If a student is not interested in going into engineering or a science-based degree, there are lots of opportunities out there, whether it’s assisting to build the tail section of the 787 Dreamliner or working for a military communications company or process automation for a food processing company. Those are all technical-trained degrees that have marketplace relevance that are marketable across the country — stackable credentials and transferable types of degrees — and that’s what we want today’s students to know.”
The Utah Manufacturers Association has spent the past year on a Utah cluster acceleration partnership with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the Utah Department of Workforce Services to identify the challenges and opportunities that exist for manufacturing in Utah, and workforce education and development is a big part of that activity. Upcoming phases will identify specific strategies to address the workforce needs and skills gap in manufacturing, including how to partner with the education community to solve those problems, Bingham said.
“We have to start now,” Bingham said. “We can’t afford to lose another generation that doesn’t understand manufacturing and doesn’t have an interest in it, because if our companies are going to expand and continue to drive the economy in Utah, we’re got to have an adequate workforce to meet that need.”
The shortfall situation has taken years to morph into its current state, and Bingham acknowledges that the activities under way will not address the skills gap over the next six to 18 months. Best-case scenario, students graduating over the next couple of years will discover “an industry that has careers waiting for them at significantly higher-paying wages than many industries,” Bingham said.
“Obviously, it is a long road and we need a strategy that gets us from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, but I don’t think there are any misconceptions that this is going to take some time. However, we all do agree that we have to start now,” he said.
“We simply can’t keep kicking the can down the road on how to fill the pipeline, and we need to start now so that in 10 years, when these companies are ready to truly expand, that we have that workforce.”