Much has been made of the fact that some U.S. manufacturers are struggling to find skilled workers, especially as demand picks up in the midst of a slow but steady economic recovery.
But a new report concludes that the skills gap likely won't hamstring U.S. manufacturing's recovery to the degree that many people have feared.
"We believe such fears are overblown – at least for the near term," a report by the Boston Consulting Group explains.
"Our research finds little evidence of a meaningful and persistent skills gap in most parts of the U.S., including in its most important manufacturing zones."
The report – titled "The U.S. Skills Gap: Could it Threaten a Manufacturing Renaissance?" – pins much of the blame for the skills gap on manufacturers themselves.
"The real problem is that companies have become too passive in recruiting and developing skilled workers at a time when the U.S. education system has moved away from a focus on manufacturing skills in order to put greater emphasis on other capabilities," the report says.
Based on a survey of 100 companies with U.S. manufacturing operations, and an analysis of job-vacancy and wage data, the Boston Consulting Group estimates that short-term demand exceeds supply by 80,000 to 100,000 skilled manufacturing workers.
That represents less than 1 percent of the nation's total manufacturing workforce, according to the report, and less than 8 percent of its highly skilled workforce of approximately 1.4 million people.
The report also concludes that skilled-worker shortages are localized. Only five of the nation's 50 largest manufacturing centers – Baton Rouge, La.; Charlotte, N.C.; Miami; San Antonio; and Wichita, Kan. – appear to have significant or severe skills gaps, according to the report.
Meanwhile, 90 percent of the biggest manufacturing areas do not show evidence of significant manufacturing-skills shortages, according to the report.
Manufacturers Falling Short
The report makes a number of assertions about the long-term picture for skilled-worker availability. Among them:
- Companies are not doing enough to cultivate a new generation of skilled manufacturing workers in the United States. Manufacturers have scaled back their in-house training over the years, and they underutilize important sources of new talent such as high schools and community colleges.
- The retirement of aging workers, as well as heightened demand for workers, could cause serious skilled-labor shortages in the United States. By 2020, the nation could face a shortfall of around 875,000 machinists, welders, industrial-machinery mechanics and industrial engineers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Boston Consulting Group estimates.
- Companies, schools, governments and nonprofits must do much more to identify, recruit, train and employ skilled manufacturing workers. A wide array of collaborative programs already exists across the United States. But these programs are not nearly sufficient.
"Quite often, the skilled workers are available – just not at a price employers are willing to pay," says Harold Sirkin, a Boston Consulting Group senior partner and co-author of the report.
"Or companies do not bother to recruit at community colleges and vocational schools. In other instances, experienced skilled workers with good academic training are available – sometimes in-house – but companies are unwilling to invest the time and money to train these workers to use new technologies or specific machines."