Time to worry about the manufacturing-skills gap

If manufacturing in the United States were its own country, it would rank as the ninth-largest economy in the world, with manufacturers contributing $2.09 trillion to the U.S. economy every year.

Every dollar spent in the manufacturing sector adds another $1.37 to the economy and each manufacturing job creates another 2.5 jobs in local goods and services.

No wonder 90 percent of Americans believe manufacturing is important for a strong economy. Yet, only 37 percent of parents encourage their kids to pursue manufacturing careers, and only 18 percent see it as a top career choice.

Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce.

That discrepancy should alarm all of us. According to a study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, "The United States faces a need for nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade, and 2 million of those jobs are likely to go unfilled due to the skills gap." Skilled workers are in high demand at manufacturing companies large and small, but not enough young people are developing the skills needed to fill those jobs.

Too many people view manufacturers as outdated factories filled with line jobs – not as innovative, inventive businesses, where workers develop and use the latest technology and build lasting, middle class careers.

To remain globally competitive, we need to encourage more young people to pursue educational tracks that can lead to a successful manufacturing career.

That is the focus of Manufacturing Day (Oct. 2), when companies in all 50 states will open their doors to students, parents and educators and showcase the high-skilled, innovative careers that are available in manufacturing.

An entry-level manufacturing engineer can expect to earn $60,000, and the average manufacturing worker earns over $77,000 annually, about $15,000 more than the average worker across all sectors.

Closing the skills gap in manufacturing is a serious challenge, but manufacturing companies across America are taking it upon themselves to address this issue. Apsco, a pneumatic cylinders, controls and valves manufacturer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has partnered with local schools to train students on-site, helping them earn valuable credentials.

Cooper Standard Automotive, an auto industry supplier in Novi, Mich., sponsored a Nascar truck race to raise money for training veterans and partnered with a local community college to provide them with fast-track training in a range of manufacturing programs.

On Oct. 5, Ace Clearwater Enterprises and the Alcoa Foundation will host a STEP [Science, Technology, Engineering and Production] Forward event in Torrance, Calif., bringing together women in manufacturing to network, discuss challenges and opportunities and learn best practices.

The Obama administration is doing its part as well and working directly with businesses and communities. The Department of Commerce leads the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a network of 60 centers and 1,200 manufacturing experts, assisting small manufacturers in improving their production processes, upgrading their technological capabilities, and bringing new products to market.

Through our Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership, the Commerce Department supports communities by encouraging leaders in a region to break down silos and develop thoughtful, comprehensive approaches to their economic development. The communities with the best plans are then eligible to receive funding from 11 different federal agencies to support the implementation of their strategy.

There is much for us to collaborate on when it comes to manufacturing and working together, we can both inspire the next generation and bring about a better and brighter future for manufacturing and our country.

Commentary by Penny Pritzker, U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. Follow them on Twitter @PennyPritzker and@JayTimmonsNAM.