StateImpact
3:35 pm
Wed February 22, 2012

Why One Reporter Says There’s No “Skills Gap” In Manufacturing, After All

First of all, if you haven’t read Lila Shapiro’s article for the Huffington Post about the “skills mismatch” (we’ve been calling it the “skills gap”) in manufacturing, you need to.  Seriously.  It’s well worth the read.  If you’d like the condensed version, however, we’re happy to provide highlights.

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been digging into the issue of the skills gap in New Hampshire, and the idea that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of factory jobs open, if only there were qualified people to fill them.

But Shapiro says it’s all smoke and mirrors.

Since we’ve spoken with a number of people tied to advanced manufacturing, and posted several times on this issue, we thought it might be helpful to provide an alternative perspective on the so-called “skills gap.”

Shapiro’s piece is essentially a response to a Sunday Washington Post article.  The newspaper reported a survey commissioned by the Manufacturing Institute found there are 600,000 open fabrication jobs in the United States.  The figure packed a bigger punch when paired with the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate that 12.8 million Americans are unemployed.  Shapiro disputes these figures in her piece:

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics also calculates job openings in manufacturing — and its numbers are less than half those cited by the Post, which attributed its figures to the Manufacturing Institute, an industry trade group. According to the government data, last year the average number of vacancies was less than 230,000. There are seven to eight times that many unemployed manufacturing workers, [Northeastern University economics professor Andrew] Sum said. The Post reported that the shortage of skilled workers has also pushed up wages. But here, too, Sum said, the evidence does not match up.

Since the beginning of the century, manufacturing wages for production workers have barely increased, Sum said. And in the last two years, as employers have said they’ve been having difficulty filling spots, wages have declined slightly.”

Shapiro then examines how the larger numbers cited by the manufacturing industry shape public policy:

‘The point of the argument is to then say: ‘We don’t need to ramp up demand or infrastructure investment. We need to fix people,” said Paul Osterman, a professor of human resources and management at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. This rhetoric, Osterman added, fits well with another priority for business owners: ‘Firms are always interested in shifting the costs of training to the public sector,’ he said.”

Thus, she writes, we see the big push for more federal and state funding for community colleges to train students in advanced manufacturing. (We’ve covered the corresponding effort in New Hampshire.)

Shapiro’s piece goes into more depth on how companies benefit (disproportionately, she argues) from these public-private partnerships.  And we highly encourage you to check it out as an alternative perspective to the coverage we’ve done so far on the manufacturing skills gap in New Hampshire.