600,000 manufacturing jobs go unfilled due to applicants lack of 'soft skills'
It isn't just high tech positions in American manufacturing that aren't being filled. The consultant company Deloitte surveyed the industry and found 600,000 perfectly good jobs going unfilled because of a lack of "soft skills."
What are soft skills?
At a recent dinner in Washington, D.C., with representatives from major American manufacturing companies, I listened as the talk turned to how hard it is to find qualified applicants for jobs.
"What exactly are the skills you can't find?" I asked, imagining that openings for high-tech positions went begging because, as we hear so often, the training of the U.S. workforce doesn't match up well with current corporate needs.
One of the representatives looked sheepishly around the room and responded: "To be perfectly honest . . . we have a hard time finding people who can pass the drug test." Several other reps gave a knowing nod. Applicants were often so underqualified, they said, that simply finding someone who could properly answer the telephone was sometimes a challenge.
American manufacturing has become more advanced, we're told, and requires computer aptitude, intricate problem solving, and greater dexterity with complex tasks. Surely if Americans were getting STEM education, they would have the skills they need to get jobs in our modern, high-tech economy.
But considerable evidence suggests that many employers would be happy just to find job applicants who have the sort of "soft" skills that used to be almost taken for granted. In the Manpower Group's 2012 Talent Shortage Survey, nearly 20% of employers cited a lack of soft skills as a key reason they couldn't hire needed employees. "Interpersonal skills and enthusiasm/motivation" were among the most commonly identified soft skills that employers found lacking.
Employers also mention a lack of elementary command of the English language. A survey in April of human-resources professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and the AARP compared the skills gap between older workers who were nearing retirement and younger workers coming into the labor pool. More than half of the organizations surveyed reported that simple grammar and spelling were the top "basic" skills among older workers that are not readily present among younger workers.
The SHRM/AARP survey also found that "professionalism" or "work ethic" is the top "applied" skill that younger workers lack. This finding is bolstered by the Empire Manufacturing Survey for April, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It said that manufacturers were finding it harder to find punctual, reliable workers today than in 2007, "an interesting result given that New York State's unemployment rate was more than 4 percentage points lower in early 2007 than in early 2012."
There are exceptions, of course. But in the aggregate, many young people, whether they have a college degree or not, simply don't want to be employed in entry level positions while many more don't have the skills even for those jobs. As the author of the article points out, there's plenty of blame to go around. But rather than seeking to assign blame, some kind of massive reform in education has to be undertaken or in another generation, we will literally be a third world country.
John Ratzenberger, who played Cliff Klavan (the mailman) on the comedy Cheers, is a prominent spokesman for a movement that seeks to deal with this crisis in manufacturing:
"The reason the world is free is because of American strength," he says. "And America's strength is based on manufacturing. And manufacturing is based on invention.
"Every single industry, and there's no exception to this rule, started with one person inventing one thing. And every single one of those people started off as a child tinkering."
In his estimation, there's not nearly enough tinkering going on these days, which he fears will have dire long-term consequences.
America, he says, has lost its manufacturing mojo. There aren't enough students entering vocational schools or the industrial trades, he says. With a dearth of wrench-savvy workers, there aren't enough people to repair the nation's crumbling bridges, buildings and water systems, let alone operate the gears of America's mighty military machinery.
The 64-year-old Ratzenberger, who once was a carpenter and is the son of a factory worker and truck driver, says the nation is facing an economic "tragedy of epic proportion" stemming from a decline in U.S. manufacturing and the men and women who know how to run, make and fix things.
"We may never recover if we lose our manufacturing edge to other countries," he says. "The pervasive impact of this crisis has the potential to turn America into a second-rate economy."
The work owes its origins to the John Ratzenberger's Made in America, which aired on the Travel Channel between 2004 and 2008 and honored American inventors, factory workers and the like.
That show also inspired the book he co-authored, We've Got it Made in America, A Common Man's Salute to an Uncommon Country, as well as the genre of blue-collar reality shows, including Dirty Jobs, Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, among others.
There's little reason to doubt Ratzenberger's latest media project won't succeed.
"You know there are 137 cities in the United States with water systems that are failing, where the water pipes are over 100 years old," he says. "There are 250,000 bridges in disrepair and not enough people to fix them.
"The reason Third World countries are Third World," he says, "is because nothing works. Basically, that's where we're headed."
For as much as both parties say they honor the working man, they certainly don't show him much respect except on Labor Day.
The average age of the American factory worker is 55 years old. The crunch is coming unless we turn around societal attitudes toward working with our hands and once again, find honor in the work itself, and not necessarily how much the worker is paid.
Hat Tip: David Paulin