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Every manufacturer needs a talented labor pool to draw from, so it is every shop’s responsibility to make sure that pool is reliably deep. An employable workforce is a must for any healthy community, requiring a group effort to raise skilled workers out of that labor pool. Let’s take a look at what that effort looks like.

Three Key Pathways to Filling the Labor Pool

First, it demands the private sector and government collaborating so that schools, workforce agencies and community organizations are aligned on curriculum to match labor needs with the needs of growth industries. The effort also includes innovative training program formats and a resurgence in apprenticeship programs so that workers can gain on-the-job experience for the opportunities that exist right now in the economy, all while getting paid. This effort also expands educational opportunities to students in career-technical education fields, so that aid is available to all students looking to fill gaps in their education.

Work is currently being done to further expand tuition assistance, industry partnerships and increased apprenticeship programs.

Tuition assistance. Laudable public programs exist that help millions of Americans pay for increasingly expensive postsecondary education. However, most federal financial aid is reserved for students enrolled in programs of study that are at least 600 clock hours over 15 weeks. Typically, this is not the kind of high-quality, short-term programs available at community colleges that credential workers for in-demand jobs.

Expanding financial aid access to students in these shorter-term certificate programs would do a lot to immediately deepen our labor pool. It’s an easy fix and the reason why community college systems around the country are pressing Congress to update existing policy, starting with a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that allocates funding for tuition programs.

Expanded apprenticeships. An apprenticeship program is a route to a great career, but they’re not always easy to find. Before we can expect apprentices to accompany veteran workers onto a job site, they often must be qualified with baseline occupational skills. That means “pre-employment” training or short programs that offer hands-on experience, such as working with tools, machinery and other project materials.

A good pre-employment program offers next-step assistance as well, by helping participants get into the apprenticeship programs they’ve prepared for, along with financial and career planning, job search assistance, networking opportunities and more.

There are other commonsense ideas we should consider too, like building in childcare assistance to programs to open the apprenticeship pathway to working parents. There’s evidence out there proving that approach works.

Industry partnerships. Businesses and government collaborating so that training programs and standards are geared toward the jobs the economy is creating now and in the immediate future is a constant process. This type of partnership is what brought small business leaders, including manufacturers, to Washington, D.C. in the wake of last November’s midterm elections to lay out for the incoming Congress what workforce policies the private sector is prioritizing.

Manufacturers advocated more funding for community colleges to support their collaboration with local businesses and also pushed to expand access to Pell Grants (federal financial aid), so that middle-skill workers have greater educational opportunities. They also talked about increasing the transparency of postsecondary outcomes so that workers will have a better sense of the return they will get for the work they’ll put into their upskilling.

Real-Life Partnerships

If all of this seems a bit vague, let’s look at a real-life partnership in action. A remarkable example comes from Seymour, Indiana, which is home to a relatively large manufacturing economy. Here, a local high school collaborated with local companies to identify a need for a steadier middle-skill talent pipeline and then established a fully functioning manufacturing facility staffed and run by high school students.

The program underpinning Owl Manufacturing (named for the school mascot) is fully aligned with the dual-credit requirements at Indiana’s statewide community college system, Ivy Tech. The teenagers there earn educational credit and on-the-job experience with a variety of manufacturing processes. It’s a great way of conveying not only general knowledge, but the specifics of assembly practices, how to track production costs or even how to prepare a procedural guide for a product’s operation.

Workforce training is an issue that is near and dear to the hearts of anyone concerned with the future of the American manufacturing economy. I’m lucky to serve as board chair of the National Skills Coalition, where we focus intensely on preparing the American worker for the jobs that will be available to them. We formed Business Leaders United for Workforce Partnerships, offering onboarding opportunities for private-sector individuals interested in lending their time and expertise to solving these issues. 

It is no easy thing to make sure that both manufacturers and prospective employees are ready for the economy that’s always just over the horizon, but many hands make light work. Please consider lending your support and voice today to efforts that will ensure a talent pipeline for generations to come.  

About the Author

Scott Paul

Scott N. Paul is president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing


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