Apprenticeship Can Fill Our Skills Gap

Last Word

To paraphrase the saying of an old relative of mine, if you don’t grow or produce anything, you’ll have nothing. That notion of the importance of agriculture and industry has been with me all my working life. For me, metalworking was a positive choice—a way to create, not just for me and my family, but for the greater good, wealth and security, prospects and opportunities. But I can’t escape the feeling that for many of our younger people, the decision to enter the world of manufacturing is not one they can imagine making.

Our young people see the world differently. Their influences aren’t the same as ours. When we grew up worrying about the Cold War, they grew up with global warming. We are new to the digital world; they are dependent upon it. We communicate differently and have different ambitions. It is naïve to expect that we would be driven or excited by the same things, but I stick by the principle that as a nation, we have to produce and we have to grow.

Without a steady input of young blood and innovative minds, the U.S. metalworking industry will wither. Production will move overseas to countries such as China and India where there is rapid adoption of new manufacturing technologies, or perhaps to countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland that achieve high levels of income and relatively low levels of earnings inequality without a college graduation rate above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) average. In 2008, in Germany, 22 percent of the workforce were employed in manufacturing. In Switzerland, the figure was 16 percent. The figure for the U.S. was below 10 percent, according to the OECD website.

Let’s look at what’s changed in production machining. The industry has changed. New and advanced methods of turning and materials handling are gaining dominance. Improvements are made all the time in equipment and methods. Cycle times shrink at the same time that precision and repeatability improve. Productivity increases and operations become leaner, slicker and more adaptive.

A Manpower Group survey conducted in 2011 indicates that more than half of U.S. employers had difficulty filling jobs. Moreover, the hardest jobs to fill in 2011 were for skilled trades, including machinists and machine operators, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These are harsh truths, but the answer is within our control. We, in manufacturing, must be able to offer something that the younger generation want and adapt ourselves to their existing expectations. Research shows that they are as keen on security and stability as the baby boomers, but they are also early adopters of emerging tech. They seek out new ways of working spawn collaborative ventures that have few artificial boundaries. They tend to be endlessly curious about the world in which we live and its potential. In other words, they are just the kind of people we need.

In other parts of the world, young people join apprenticeships in their teens. By the time they reach their early 20s, they are valuable members of the team. I recently had the opportunity to visit Wickman in the U.K. At its Coventry location, home of the company’s screw machines, I chatted with a young apprentice engineer. He was candid about his experience, admitting that he still had much to learn, but he is already clearly an asset to the company. The investment in time and training has paid dividends, not only for the young man, but for the business as a whole.

In Europe, an apprenticeship is a highly regarded career move, a way of continuing education, while learning a valuable, lifelong trade from those with experience. It’s
a stepping stone to economic security for individuals
and industry.

In the U.S., apprenticeships are not as well recognized. Most people that join them are over 20, many approaching their mid or late 20s. There are few links between industry and secondary schools and a valuable opportunity to gain the interest of young people and recruit can be lost. Without the younger generation, to whom will we pass our knowledge?

Times are changing, and we have to change with them. We need to educate a new generation of engineers who can appreciate the complexity and diversity of a machine shop, who can solve problems, understand economics, collaborate and communicate.

Our young people are well suited. Let’s get them trained.