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Closing the Skills Gap: Manufacturing Isn’t Dead

January 20, 2017

When the term manufacturing comes to mind, so does outsourced jobs to China or Taiwan, but the reality is that manufacturing is still a leading industry for the US economy among healthcare and finance. While playing an important role in the economy, manufacturing is facing challenges. In recent years manufacturing companies have faced a substantial need for a skilled workforce. While baby boomers prepare to retire, only a small percentage of millennials are choosing manufacturing as a career path. This leaves manufacturing companies unable to continue productivity and advancement. Between 2015 and 2025, there will be a need for 3.5 million manufacturing jobs but a staggering 2 million of these positions will go unfilled due to the lack of skilled workers.

In South Carolina, the median salary for a manufacturing job is between $60,000-$80,000 while the average millennial earns a median salary of $19,70010. Manufacturing employees earn higher wages and receive generous benefits such as paid leave, supplemental pay, and insurance.4 The industry offers attractive career opportunities for all education levels – skilled trades and high school diplomas to PhDs. A diverse portfolio of occupations include: engineering and technology, production, logistics and distribution, maintenance, installation and repair, business, management, and administration. Vocational and technical schools offer career-focused training to prepare students for the workforce. While more millennials are choosing to attend college, the demand for a skills-based workforce continues to rise.

With large salaries, benefits, and minimal schooling required, why aren’t young adults considering manufacturing as a career? Most people are misinformed and “believe a common misconception that manufacturing is dirty, dangerous, and not an ideal career choice,” says Channing Childers, South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership (SCMEP), Marketing Coordinator. While manufacturing is understood to be one of the most important industries for the US economy, the belief that manufacturing offers a negative work environment is affecting the lack of workforce. “As this idea is passed on from generation to generation, parents are less likely to encourage a career in manufacturing,” says Childers. Surveys show that 90 percent of Americans believe in a strong manufacturing sector but only 17 percent of students said their parents encourage them to pursue a career in manufacturing.3­­­­­­­­­ The industry is working hard to change people’s perception because “the truth is, manufacturing today is a highly advanced industry with leading technology and innovations,” says Childers.

Over the past 40 years, we’ve seen a shift in the US workforce from a goods-based manufacturing economy to an information-based services economy. 1 In other words, skill based careers like manufacturing are becoming less popular among younger generations. Now, more than ever, new generations are choosing to attend a 4-year college instead of exploring other available paths. A Georgetown University study, Failure to Launch: Structural Shift and the New Lost Generation, stated that in 1983, workers with a BA or better made 40 percent more than those with a high school diploma; and by 2010, that premium had increased to 74 percent. There is no doubt that statistics like these have influenced young adults’ decisions to pursue higher education, but that may not always be the right choice for everyone. Surveys show that financial considerations are often times the driving factor behind the decision whether and where to go to college. 9

High school students feel pressured into choosing the perfect career just months before graduating. Finding the right fit doesn’t always come easy. Many students that are financing their own education don’t believe in spending a fortune on a degree they might never use. With the right guidance and information, students can find programs that can provide the most for their money. Manufacturing might not be first in mind for many students, but is one of the fastest growing industries that can offer advancement. In South Carolina, manufacturing jobs increased 5.1 percent since September 2011, compared to a national increase of 3.3 percent during the same period.8 “Mature manufacturing companies are now recruiting in high schools in an effort to show students and parents that manufacturing offers great careers,” says Chuck Spangler, President of SCMEP. Through scholarships and training, students could find the right career in manufacturing.

In South Carolina, the manufacturing industry employs 4.36-5.8 percent of the working age population. 7 But skilled workers are still in high demand. Companies in South Carolina such as SCMEP are committed to the future advancement of manufacturing. “Many companies are realizing that they must start working on transferring knowledge to the younger generation,” says Spangler. For the second year, SCMEP has participated in national Manufacturing Day, with a mission to expand the knowledge of manufacturing and its true value. Through these events, students, parents, educators, civic leaders, and local communities are able to view world-class manufacturing plants which allows them to understand what modern day manufacturing looks like. Following Manufacturing Day in 2015, 71% of students said they were more likely to tell friends, family, parents or colleagues about manufacturing and 81% were more convinced that the industry provides careers that are interesting and rewarding. 11

Companies such as BMW Manufacturing Co. offer students an opportunity to gain real-world experience through their Scholar Program. Students who are earning manufacturing-related degrees are offered part-time hours at BMW Manufacturing. Through the Scholar Program, BMW recruits students from Tri-County Technical College, Spartanburg Community College, and Greenville Technical College. This program allows students to gain valuable experience in automotive, equipment, logistics, and production. It also provides training courses to prepare them for on-the-job experience. After completing the program, students are often prepared for full-time employment at BMW. Today, BMW supplies jobs to over 30,000 South Carolinians and continues to seek talented students. 2

Another SC based company dedicated to the success of South Carolina’s manufacturing industry is Michelin North America. Michelin partnered with Midlands Technical College in an effort to overcome the biggest challenge in manufacturing: filling the skills gap. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) presented MTC the Award of Excellence for a College/Corporate Partnership. 3 “Since 2011, Michelin has announced Earthmover and Passenger Car and Light Truck expansions in the state totaling more than $950 million in investments and creating in excess of 700 manufacturing jobs.” 3 This program collaborates with South Carolina community colleges to recruit and train students for technical positions. It is aimed to introduce and educate students to the opportunities, advancement, and high pay that a career in manufacturing can offer.

Students interested in kick-starting their careers in manufacturing are encouraged to speak with their school administration and local community college. Manufacturing is a competitive industry that continues to grow in South Carolina. Local community colleges will be able to address manufacturing skill standards which will prepare future training in the student’s career. STEM Premier, sponsored by the South Carolina Department of Commerce, is another great resource for students. This platform allows students to identify tools, resources, scholarships, job opportunities, and much more.