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The need for manufacturing skill standards

A number of thoughtful analyses of today’s pressing workforce development issues are surfacing. The Alliance for Innovation & Operational Excellence is one good source for such analysis. Our good friend and skilled blogger Keith Campbell has also been following this subject area very closely for some years now. I wanted to share his recent On The Edge blog entry for those who may have missed it:

Today the Governor's office in my home state issued a report on the status of manufacturing in Pennsylvania along with a series of specific recommendations for encouraging growth in manufacturing. As has been discussed many times in this blog, the report confirmed: "the most pressing problem now and for the near-term is finding people with the education and skills to fill the high-quality manufacturing positions currently available"; and "Of equal importance is addressing the need for our future-manufacturing workforce to develop the leaders of tomorrow, a long-neglected issue, which has impacted the current talent crisis."

Six specific recommendations were provided to deal with this workforce issue. The second of these, "industry-led standardization of skill needs and curriculum" is exactly what PMMI and the Mid-Atlantic Mechatronics Partnership have been engaged in for the past several years. It is now time for hybrid manufacturers, particularly packagers, to step forward and embrace this work.

None of us can hope to solve the workforce issue alone, so for the sake of US competitiveness, individual manufacturers must let go of the belief that they alone know best what skills their people should possess.

Nearly every other major economic segment has standardized the basic skill requirements for their workers. Doctors, nurses, crane operators, auto mechanics, CNC operators, registered engineers, lawyers, truck drivers all must conform with a minimum set of standards established, enumerated, and tested by their industry. But in manufacturing, few if any of such standards exist. Why?

One reason is that manufacturing is painted with too wide of a brush. I discussed this at some length in a May post entitled A broader view of manufacturing. There I identified large clusters of manufacturers that can be grouped together for certain purposes, such as for defining industrial maintenance skills or machine operator skills. One such group is hybrid manufacturers and packagers, and it is exactly this group at which the work of PMMI and MAMP is aimed. If you are in this industry cluster, you should be starting to use the PMMI Mechatronics Certification Program, which has been embraced by the National Association of Manufacturers, to validate the skills of your existing maintenance technicians and to establish specific requirements for the schools supplying your workforce pipeline.

Don't let the term 'mechatronics' fool you. What mechatronics means in this context is that we can no longer afford to send out a mechanic, electrician, instrument servicer, programmer and network specialist to fix a machine -- or to argue over whose problem it is. Industrial maintenance in today's world requires multi-skilled technicians. We can describe that person by saying something like 'electrically cross-trained mechanic who can work with PLC software' or we can say 'mechatronic technician'. We are talking about industrial maintenance here!

I don't know if manufacturers will come around to embrace common skill standards or not. But if they don't, our education system is not going to turn out the people that we need to fill existing manufacturing job openings (7,639 right now in PA); to fill the pipeline for replacement workers (25% of manufacturing employees are over 55 years of age); or to bridge the skills gap (84% of

manufacturers report a serious or moderate gap) which can keep manufacturing productivity moving in the right direction (outpacing all other sectors with a 259% productivity improvement over 40 years).

My hunch is that the front line supervisors, managers and engineers are going to resist skill standards. But when the governor of the 6th largest manufacturing state has a team of 24 manufacturing leaders, mostly CEO's, agreeing on the need, this may rapidly became an initiative driven down from the top. I always found it better to be leading change than to be run over by it. Where do you stand on the issue?


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