Educating Workers for Jobs in the New Economy

By Sandy K. Johnson

The manufacturing industry, decimated during the Great Recession, is bouncing back. The indicators look strong:

  • Manufacturing has the highest output among industries, and now accounts for 10 percent of all workers.
  • Open jobs in manufacturing stand at the highest level in 15 years, averaging 350,000 per month.

But the skillset required for today’s manufacturing jobs is more sophisticated than ever. Automation and technology, ever changing, dominate manufacturing jobs. The so-called skills gap occurs when the pace of technology outgrows the supply of skilled labor. One survey found that eight in 10 manufacturing executives said the skills gap will affect their ability to keep up with consumer demand.

The stakes are high. In 1979, the output for every manufacturing employee equaled $100,000; today, it is $300,000, said Nicole Smith, a research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Smith and Josh Zumbrun, national economics reporter for The Wall Street Journal, had suggestions for journalists covering the skills gap. In the government, the Federal Reserve regional banks and the Department of Labor have great research and data on the issue. Zumbrun specifically mentioned JOLTS, the job openings and labor turnover survey, and OES, occupational employment statistics, as rich sources for reporters.

Other good sources of information include: Indeed, Burning Glass, Glassdoor, The Brookings Institution and The Conference Board.

On the education side of the ledger, universities and community colleges are working with industry to make sure their graduates have the right skillset to get good-paying jobs with a future. Some schools are partnering with businesses to make sure students get the training needed for advanced manufacturing jobs. Auto and pharmaceutical manufacturing are among the highest-paying jobs in the industry, Smith said.

Zumbrun suggested reporters talk with community college professors or career centers for more information on these partnerships, or with the local Chamber of Commerce.

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