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What Skills Gap? How To Navigate Manufacturing's Skilled Labor Challenge

Posted on Aug 28, 2017
skilled labor challenge

A lack of highly skilled employees in your operation doesn't have to mean a death sentence. While the skills gap is very real and the need to combat it is even more pressing, there are feasible ways to work around it, and even combat it. Start by investing in local and national Career Technical Education Programs and utilizing easy-to-use and simple-to-train lean manufacturing equipment. 

The National Association of Manufacturers boasted that optimism among U.S. manufacturers hit a 20-year high in March. According to NAM’s first quarter Manufacturers Outlook Survey, “More than 93 percent of manufacturers are feeling positive about their economic outlook.”

Also in March, the Reshoring Initiative proclaimed that the 3 to 5 million manufacturing jobs “lost to trade/offshoring since 1979” can be brought back by reshoring.

The resurgence of U.S. manufacturing is reflected by the recent five-month string of consecutive manufacturing employment growth. Between December and April, manufacturers added 111,000 new hires to their payrolls. 

Yet something is amiss among all of this bliss. While U.S. manufacturing is on the cusp of a renaissance,  most industries including metalworking and woodworking, are suffering from an acute shortage of skilled manpower. This is called the Skilled Labor Challenge or the Skills Gap.

And it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better.

Headed on a Collision Course

According to a groundbreaking 2015 study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, the number of unfilled manufacturing jobs is expected to grow from 600,000 in 2015 to 2 million by 2025. The two major reasons for the increasing skilled worker shortage are baby boomer retirements and economic expansion. Adding to this widening Skills Gap noted by the study, is the “negative image of the manufacturing industry among younger generations, a lack of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills among workers, and a gradual decline of technical education programs in public high schools.”

The study notes the following sad irony: While Americans view manufacturing as one of the most important domestic industries for maintaining a strong national economy, only 37% would encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career.

The general public’s low esteem for the trades is widely evident in high schools across the country where woodworking and metalworking programs have been eliminated by the droves.  And once welding equipment or a band saw is removed from a school, it is very unlikely that it will ever return.

The tremendous opportunity to reshore good-paying manufacturing jobs and the dearth of Americans willing to work in factories are headed on a collision course. With the unemployment rate falling to 4.4%, the lowest it’s been in a decade, domestic manufacturers looking to capitalize on the economic boom will find it even more challenging to find qualified help.


So what is manufacturing to do and why should the nation focus on growing and protecting manufacturing jobs? Because a thriving manufacturing sector builds thriving communities. Each manufacturing job creates 3 to 5 local jobs. This manufacturing phenomenon is called “Manufacturing’s Multiplier Effect". 

“Because manufacturing has so many substantial links with so many other sectors throughout the economy, its output stimulates more economic activity across society than any other sector. And a new study suggests the multiplier effect of manufacturing may be much higher than previously calculated… Earlier projections based on Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) annual input-output tables have calculated that a dollar's worth of final demand for manufacturers generates $1.48 in other services and production… A new analysis by Inforum, an economic consulting service working out of the University of Maryland, suggests the manufacturing multiplier is much higher -- $1.92, almost doubling the base value of the manufacturing output itself.” –Industry Week

Developing Tomorrow's Workforce Starts Today

Many manufacturers have taken matters into their own hands, counteracting the skills gap by investing in automation equipment that is intuitive and simple to use for even the most unskilled operator. This automated machinery can be used to minimize set up time, eliminate manufacturing bottlenecks due to accuracy errors, and increase quality control, all while boosting productivity. Programming, operating, and maintaining today’s technology doesn’t require a new breed of skilled workers- anyone who can operate a calculator is suitable.

skills gap SawGear

In addition, forward thinking representatives of the metalworking and woodworking industries have been replenishing the labor pool by making concerted efforts to develop a skilled workforce through both the National Institute for Metalworking Skills Inc. (NIMS) and the Woodwork Career Alliance of North America (WCA). These initiatives target the recruitment of youths into the trades by promoting the rewarding careers availed in modern-day manufacturing. The initiatives also target the retention of workers through the development of skill standards that employers can use to assess new hires and use to train and promote current workers. The metal and wood skill standards create pathways by which workers can grow their incomes by sharpening their skills and becoming more valuable to their employer.


The NIMS was formed in 1994 by the metalworking trade associations to establish industry skill standards, certify individual skills against the standards, and to accredit training programs meeting NIMS quality requirements. NIMS has developed skills standards for everything from metal forming and machining through industrial maintenance. NIMS’ three-levels of standards, ranging from entry to master, are accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Since being founded in 2007, the WCA has developed more than 240 skill standards for woodworking machines and operations recognized throughout the United States and Canada.  More than 160 high school and postsecondary schools throughout the U.S and Canada are currently subscribers of the WCA’s skill standards. Four states – California, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin – recognize the WCA credential in their state-funded woodworking education programs. In addition, the WCA has issued nearly 1,400 credential passports to students and woodworking professionals. 

skilled labor challenge TigerStop


Organizations like NIMS and WCA have done a lot of heavy lifting to benefit the metalworking and woodworking trades. They have established a foundation for tackling the critical skills gap facing their respective industries. Any metal or wood business executive struggling to find qualified help would do themselves a serious favor by learning more about these groups and seeing how they might get involved to help secure America’s manufacturing future.

In addition, supporting trade schools and career technical education (CTE) centers train the next generation of skilled workers is vital to battling the shortage of skilled workers. Programs like the Peyton Woods Manufacturing and Manufacturing Industry Learning Lab (MiLL) in Colorado are working to change the perception of the trades. Students, war vets, and those already in the manufacturing industry can take courses to freshen up their manufacturing skills using top of the line equipment donated by those in the manufacturing industry.

 By Rich Christianson


To learn more about manufacturing equipment that can be used by anyone, regardless of skill, click below.

Learn More About Solving  The Skills Gap With Automation