Canadian Plastics

Skilled workers: North America’s most wanted

Canadian Plastics   

Despite the shaky economy, scores of North American manufacturers are reporting a dire need for skilled labor. It's a claim borne out by industry surveys and studies. According to a 2009 survey conduc...

Despite the shaky economy, scores of North American manufacturers are reporting a dire need for skilled labor. It’s a claim borne out by industry surveys and studies. According to a 2009 survey conducted by research firm Manpower Inc., for example, among the most difficult jobs to fill in North America are those of the skilled manual trades, with electricians, carpenters/joiners and welders as the most in-demand employees. And a report issued by consulting firm Deloitte and Oracle, also in 2009, concluded that among companies involved in skilled production (whose employees are machinists, craft workers and technicians), 51 per cent report are already reporting manpower shortages.

And it’s only going to get worse: the average age of a worker in today’s skilled workforce is 56 years old. The baby boomer generation of skilled workers is set to retire within the next five to 15 years, creating the need for an estimated 10 million new workers in America alone by 2020. This looming skilled-worker shortage is an unwelcome threat to our manufacturing base.


The main cause of the looming shortage? Manufacturing has an image problem, especially among today’s youth. In the past, high school students could take a shop class and get a feel for working with tools, but today most don’t have that chance. Education priorities today rarely position manufacturing as a preferred career choice, and high school counselors and principals often fail to realize that manufacturing is a viable option for students.


Many of today’s youth also seem unaware that the tales of backbreaking labor and grimy working conditions are ancient history, and that modern manufacturers have embraced new technologies and involved workers in management and product development. Manufacturing positions today include exciting work with lasers and robotics. The introduction of CNC machine tools has changed the nature of the work of machinists — they now have to be computer literate and understand basic electronics and physics. Again, this is in direct contrast to lingering stereotypes.


Reaching educators is key to improving the future skilled workforce. Partnerships between local manufacturers and educational institutions will encourage more people to enter the field and to employ more skilled workers in plants and factories. Manufacturers should consider offering field trips for local elementary and middle school classes; when students see a clean, modern facility full of sophisticated machinery, it might just leave them with a positive, lasting impression.

Employers should also foster ties with education officials in local communities. Donating equipment to local trade or vocational schools to support manufacturing courses is one way. Another could involve manufacturers offering to advise instructors and counselors at community colleges or high schools on job opportunities available and in curriculum planning.

Additionally, provincial and state legislatures and schools and businesses should consider addressing the shortfall in skilled workers directly through vocational training and workforce development programs. One such initiative was recently launched in California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled the “I Built It-Youth” campaign, a collaboration between the California Department of Industrial Relations and the California Department of Education to begin training California’s future skilled workforce to help rebuild the state’s often crumbling infrastructure.

Manufacturers should also tap into the knowledge of their aging workforces and institute programs or training initiatives that introduce high school students to careers in the trades. A machine shop in Newberg, Ore., for example, volunteered its machinists to act as advisors to instructors at local community colleges, assisting in teaching the newest machining techniques and helping with curriculum planning.


Finally, it would be foolish not to exploit one of the great learning engines of recent history: the Internet. Fortunately, this is already being done. One of the most innovative new programs for giving young people a view of manufacturing opportunities is called “Max & Ben’s Manufacturing Adventures” — — a website where two 13-year old boys present their tours of local manufacturing facilities in video format.

The campaigns and programs described here — along with many others — can help change young people’s minds about manufacturing…but only if they hear about them. The manufacturing industry must use the media, in all of its shapes, to inform the public about its efforts.

In the end, young people need to be convinced that there is a high demand and great future potential — including the opportunity to own and operate your own business — that comes with a career in the skilled trades. The continued health of the manufacturing industry depends on this message getting through, and we’re running out of time.

Gerald Shankel is the president and CEO of Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International, (FMA) a Rockford, Ill.-based professional organization dedicated to improving the metal forming and fabricating industry. FMA has more than 2,000 individual and company members throughout Canada and the U.S., and reaching into more than 40 other countries. Visit


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