Dean Barber

Let’s Get Real

In Uncategorized on March 4, 2012 at 7:30 am

More often than not, the source and solution of our problems can be found by the sometimes unpleasant task of looking into the mirror. We typically do not like to do this. It is far more convenient to shuck it off onto someone else. It’s their fault. My hands are clean.

Oh really?

So when manufacturers in this country lament that they cannot find the people qualified to do the work they require, many (not all) will lay blame at the feet of educators. They are not providing us with the required human capital. Our schools are turning out, in essence, a nation of unqualified boobs.

This blog will not be written in defense of our education system. There are good school systems and bad school systems, and no doubt the argument can be made that we are not producing the number of graduates with math and science degrees needed for the 21st century. You go ahead and write that blog, and I will read it and nod approvingly.

No, the point of today’s rant is that many employers, and in particular manufacturers, now hold the belief that it is somebody else’s job, certainly not their own, to provide the needed training for their work force.

Again I say, “Oh really?”

In short, more and more employers are looking for that all-knowing, all experienced employee who can hit the ground running without any training. But is that realistic? I think you may already know the answer to that by the way I so faithfully skewed the question.

Objection. The prosecution is leading the witness,

Over-ruled. You may continue, Mr. Barber.

Thank you, your honor.

A recent report by Deloitte for the Manufacturing Institute, based on a survey of manufacturers, found that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled. This is happening at a time when the unemployed in the United States number nearly 13 million.

“High unemployment is not making it easier to fill positions, particularly in the areas of skilled production and production support,” the Deloitte report found.

So clearly there is a disconnect somewhere. Something is wrong.

Now I wish I could tell you that this notion that employers are not as engaged in training as they used to be was all original thought with me, but it is not. My original thoughts consist of ideas like “I’m going to take a walk” or “I am going to eat this apple.” That is about the extent of my original thought, a terrible admission to make for an all-knowing business consultant.

No, I happened upon the writings of Peter Cappelli, who is the George W. Taylor professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. And the source was the venerable Wall Street Journal, so you know that it has to be right.

I also was impressed by some observations of Jeff Moad, executive editor at Manufacturing Executive, and my old friend Danny Collins, a HR consultant serving tier one automotive suppliers in Alabama. I spoke to Professor Cappelli and Danny, but was never able to get Mr. Moad on the phone.

But the consensus from these three men is that manufacturers in this country are increasingly taking the peculiar and rather shortsighted view that training is simply not their responsibility. That view is only buttressed by the advent and attempted transformation of the community college system and the effective demise of apprenticeship programs here in the US.

The end result, according to Cappelli, is that many employers will essentially sit and wait for Mr. or Ms. Right to walk into the door as an experienced candidate who can hit the ground running with no training needed.

“A lot of companies want to find somebody who has demonstrated that they have already done the job before in a way that they could just step in and do it without any kind of ramp up time. That is the unrealistic part,” Cappelli said.

Much of the problem can be traced to the fact that more and more companies do not have training programs in place.

“They assume with all this unemployment that there are a lot of people out there who could just do their job perfectly and they just have to keep looking for them. That is a different model to be sure,” Cappelli said.

“Now that might work for one company to do that, to say, ‘We’re not going to train people. We’re just going to wait to find the right people.’ But if everybody does that, which seems to be the trend, then we have a problem.”

Danny Collins, president of Southern Professional Resources, in Birmingham, Ala., said the recession essentially scared and scarred some companies, who came to view training as more as an expense than an investment toward the future.

“There are plenty of companies out there now that choose not to put the effort into training, which is kind of nutty,” Collins said. “The progressive companies realize that in order to ensure themselves of a continued pipeline of qualified people, they need to be active with training programs.”

But Cappelli suggests that fewer companies are taking such a long-term view. Witness the demise of the wide use of apprenticeship programs in this country.

“The craft union apprenticeship programs are largely dead because the unions died. And the unions were the people that made them go,” Cappelli said.

“In other kind of apprenticeship programs, the companies for a lot of reasons just don’t want to do them. Maybe they don’t want to take the time. Maybe they feel they are training people and they are not sure how long that they are going to need them. Or maybe they are afraid that somebody will hire them away. So they just don’t seem to be doing them.”

In preparing to write this blog, I dutifully engaged in a news internet search for the words “apprentice” and “apprenticeship.” I found plenty of hits for news stories originating in Great Britain, but virtually nothing here in the US. No doubt, there are some apprenticeship programs still in existence here, but the concept and practice appears not to be in frequent use.

“A lot of those programs have just gone away,” Collins said.

Write Jeff Moad, executive editor of Manufacturing Executive: “At some point manufacturers themselves need to take on the challenge of developing the next generation. … A good start would be the kind of apprenticeship programs we see in Germany and used to see in the US.”

No, the norm today in the US is that community colleges and government are supposed to be the primary sources for training. At least that is the thinking for many manufacturers, says Cappelli. And while that mindset is in place, the chance for a strong resurgence in apprenticeship programs in the US is not good.

“I don’t think it is going to happen. I don’t think the employers want to do it. I think they are hoping they can get someone else to do it for them, like community colleges and the government,” Cappelli said.

“The problem is that governments and community colleges are not good at teaching those sorts of skills. They are work based. You’ve got to do them hands on. And it is not very efficient to try to teach somebody to be a carpenter in a classroom. And that is not just true for skilled trades but it’s true for all kinds of work.  The best way to learn is by doing it.”

Now please. Do not think by me quoting Dr. Cappelli that I am in league with him suggesting that your beloved community college is not doing public good by engaging in training. I am not saying that, and I don’t think he is saying that. What he is saying, and to which I agree, is that companies have to be involved. It should not fall solely on the shoulders of community colleges or government.

“The problem there is that community colleges originally were not set up to meet the specific needs of individual employers. Only in recent years have they got into doing what you might think of as job training,” Cappelli said.

“And that seems to be the demand now – the companies would like them to not only provide sort of general training for students but also meet the quite specific needs of the individual employer. That’s kind of a stretch to ask them to do that, especially with taxpayer dollars.”

It’s so easy to point fingers at someone else. So often you will hear the following from industry associations: The schools aren’t meeting our industry needs. They are not providing us with the skilled people that we so desperately need. But I have to think of that old blues song with the refrain, “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.”

“They are blaming the schools for the problem, but virtually none of these employers are hiring entry level workers,” Cappelli said. “If you ask employers what’s wrong, most never look at themselves in thinking what to do.”

So maybe, if this is all true, and I suspect that the good professor is on to something here, maybe, just maybe, manufacturers should just get real. Certainly many companies do have robust training programs within, but the idea of relegating all or most of your training to an outside source does seem a bit of a stretch.

Ultimately, the questions before our manufacturing companies pose themselves: Is it somebody else’s job to train our people to get them up to speed? Is that the right course? Is that realistic? Could it be that we might have some shared responsibility here? Might we want to stop for a moment and look in the mirror?

Need a partner in results-oriented site selection? Contact Dean Barber at 972-890-3733 or at Barber Business Advisors, LLC, is a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. Please visit our website at

  1. Wharton, Texas has working relationship with Wharton County Junior College in four cities,
    Sugar Land, Rosenberg, Bay City and Wharton coordination training with employers through contracts with employers and occasionally using State of Texas Workforce training dollars.
    Course of study range from employing persons for Nucleur Power plants, petroleum refinery plants to working in in Lays Potatoe Chip factory. Let us know how Wharton can help you in the Houston Region.

  2. It is interesting Dean, I was reading an article on this last week and was very surprised to hear that training programs had almost died out. I worked as a training instructor and supervisor during the late 70’s for Cryovac, at that time a W R Grace and Company, company. We developed the training materials, the on the job training and the qualification process for every job in the plant. We were with them every step of the way before turning them over to their supervisor. They either qualified or they didn’t. When they hit the floor, they came running and ready. In another plant, where I worked as the production manager, that’s the first thing I implemented. Results improved drastically!

  3. I am not one bit surprised! I have seen this decline over the years and have been appauled by the lack of training by big business. It makes not sense to me. As a former union person who promoted training by all labor unions with great success in the northeast, we constantly furnished business and industry with a highly qualified pool of labor to chose from. One in mind was the 3rd person on power-line crews. This person was at the bottom of the totum pole and in trainning. Now both utility contractors and utility companies rely on someone else to do the training to a large extent. This policy makes no sense to me but I guess it is a major way to boost revenues as it costs money to train these days.
    It seems that today, we all want to let federal and state funds train our help. Now have “entitlement” for American Business.
    My current employer is now even investigating using federal funds to create a trainning program for grocery store employees! It is currently being done elsewhere. Doesn’t make sense to me except that it will create a new governemnt sponsored trainning program.
    A look in the morrow may weel be a good diagnosis process or us all to go thru.

  4. Excellent piece, the ludicrousness of the “free markets solve all, cut my taxes, but hey, train up my workers for free just the way I like ’em unless I want to dump ’em all to replace ’em with illiterate, innumerate, non-English-speaking rural peasants somewhere as my new “skilled” workforce!” continues to appall me. Generally you can get them to increase training investment and time though. The campuses sell themselves as such resources while there are too many clusters, let alone skillsets, needed in any region for them to address more than a very few…slowly, generally, and expensively. K-12’s been dismantling their shop and business classes to free up resources for “No Child Left Behind” so if anything they’ve lost a century’s progress (although they were already dismantling and starving most of those programs in recent decades because everyone making the decisions had consciously chosen to avoid those careers themselves…why we let career educators make decisions about the outside world is baffling.

  5. Dear Dean:

    I would concur, but I think you may be letting the education system and governments off the hook too easily. Employers have always wrestled with the risk of training workers only to have them jump ship to another company, often a competitor. Governments have talked a lot about skills development, but programs tend to fall short. Educational institutions are rarely as up-to-date and responsive to industry needs as could be desired.

    I will raise one comment I’ve had from management of a manufacturing plant here in Canada, a division of a Canadian-based multinational. They own their own employee search firm and are completely willing to train new recruits for well-paying manufacturing jobs. They say, however that they have a very hard time finding people with sufficient technical aptitude. Perhaps here in Canada and the United States we, as a society, do not accord technical skills with sufficient respect, leading to a lack of demand for the basic training required.

  6. Let’s not overlook another factor in this mess- it wasn’t so very long ago that folks with the very skills you’re talking about were laid off in droves- largely, but not entirely due to outsourcing. If these skilled labor jobs don’t offer attractive wages, benefits, and career stability, there will be very little demand for the training and education required to get these jobs regardless of who offers it.

  7. A few points.

    The presumption is that employers can afford to train but you must keep in mind that all the growth is in smaller firms and start-ups. Not only do they not have the financial resources to train, they usually need training themselves. It serves no purpose to blame the blind for not leading the blinder -and that’s assuming they had the financial resources to do it.

    Secondly is not so much an expectation that schools should do the work of training workers for us but that they should train people appropriately. It is not a situation of schools being obligated to provide more training or more skills. It is that schools should stop training for “this” and to train for *that*.

    Third, the two above points are incumbent on the idea that people are seeking the sort of skills to be employed in factory enterprises when they mostly are not. If you can find someone willing to work in a factory, their attitude is one of “I’ll do this until I get something better”. And we are chastised for failing to invest in workers who are not invested in us? We need willing workers, not desperate ones.

  8. I’ve been singing this tune since the late 80’s as I watched our tool shops, one after the other, drop their apprenticeship programs.

    As recently as last fall I was having dinner with a friend who owns a tool shop in SW Michigan who stated he had 6 apprentices in his company of 60 people. I complimented him on being the first person to even mention the word in the last 15 years! He is proactively doing what others are still waiting for.

    I’ve published articles in the “Die Casting Engineer” magazine encouraging people to return to training. They don’t recognize the self fulfilling prophecy of “I’m not going to train because they’ll just leave”. Actually the opposite is true. When you have a training program coupled with a compensation package that recognizes the additional skills and efficiencies that can be achieved when that employee reaches new levels, they stay with you. Most people don’t like to change jobs. They would prefer to hang in there.

    Case in point. As a Plant Mgr. in a young company in 1991 I started training everyone in sight. There were around 80 employees then. Today, there are over 600 and they have built 4 new plants since 1991. Most of the key people there today were trained on-site. They are programming and operating robots with vision systems operating CNC mills and lathes and doing vision system inspection and packing. Only a handful of their engineers are degreed. Yet they are highly sought after as an automotive supplier.

    Schools at best can teach the basics but the specifics will have to be taught on-site.

    Dr. Die Cast

  9. Dean, I posted a blog last year about the benefits of a business training its team. Essentially, my belief is that adequate training improves efficiency in the work required in a business, increases employee morale and reduces turnover, and ultimiately increases revenue for the business. I’ve heard the argument that employees are trained and then they leave to find greener pastures. Yes, I agree, some employees do. But if a business is offering other benefits along with training, employees may be more likely to remain with that company. An employee who is not properly trained becomes a liability rather than an asset to the company.

    Of course, one training session and one type of training is not enough to develop an employee. Training should be ongoing and should meet the needs of different types of employees. I worked for a CPA firm for 10 years and we were required to participate in at least 40 hours of training each year (depending on the job requirements). What I liked most was it included a personal development component. Employees were not only encouraged to work on their “direct job” skills, but they were also encouraged to work on other skills that would indirectly make them a better employee, leader, etc.

    Years ago I worked for a Canadian Bank in the Bahamas. They were advocates of on-the-job training. Employees were required to cross-train on other positions. The company also developed and maintained a management trainee program where associates were trained in different supervisory/leadership roles. If an employee became ill, there was someone to help perform that employee’s roles while they were out. Also, when opportunities became available, those employees were considered for a new position. I’m thinking this is similar to an apprenticeship program?

    I agree that training can be a costly venture. But I see it as a win-win opportunity for both the business and its employees. I am currently promoting Florida’s workforce training grants to Florida businesses that are already actively involved in training their team. The State has reimbursed employers up to 75% of their direct training costs to improve the skills of Florida’s workforce. The employer benefits with knowledgeable employees and the State benefits with a highly skilled workforce.

  10. Hi Dean and others.

    I’ve read Dean’s article and many of the responses, and I believe that many of you are ignoring some factors that are causing this technical worker shortage. Dean included.

    I am a manufacturing engineer with 20 years of experience in manufacturing. When I first started out in manufacturing, I worked on the production line operating multi-spindle CNC lathes. I was in my early twenties then and minimum wage was under $5.00/hr. I know many of us remember those days. I counted myself fortunate to start at $6.50/hr. Now, granted here is the premise that I had no experience, but I did have the desire to learn.

    Over the past 20 years I have learned. I have also observed the trends in the job markets and what kinds of educations people are pursuing. I don’t know when the last time any of you have looked at the job boards on any of the major job hunting websites, but I have noticed quite a trend. I have noticed that the entry level salaries of IT and computer network related jobs far outshine the entry level salaries of manufacturing and industrial related jobs. For instance, yesterday I came across an ad for an IT job requiring a bachelor’s degree and 2 years experience (which is essentially still an entry level position) where the salary range was from $90,000 – $110,000. I similarly came across a job listing for an Industrial Engineer requiring a bachelor’s degree and 5 years of experience (over twice that of the other IT job) where the salary ranged from $43,000 – $52,000.

    Now I ask all of you: Why would a college freshman choose to spend the same amount of tuition on a degree (manufacturing / industrial) that would earn him half the starting salary of his peers who chose to spend their identical tuition amount on an IT degree?

    Have we all ignored the probability that the schools are teaching exactly what we are telling them that we want? We say we want technical graduates, and they produce technical graduates. But, they haven’t done it in the field that we wanted them to be produced in, have they? Is that the school’s fault? The schools are only providing a course of study to be chosen by the student. If all the technically minded students wish to pursue a vocation that will earn for them the most money, who could blame them? I say that the disparity of salaries is what is causing students to choose not to enter the fields where there is the most need.

    It boggles my mind when I hear of employers complaining that they can’t find any qualified technical workers or engineers. Of course, they can’t. How can an employer balk at offering, lets say for discussion, $60,000 – $65,000 to an entry level engineer who will design the products that the employer wishes to sell and think nothing of offering the same amount to an entry level IT graduate whose job is nothing but pure overhead and doesn’t produce anything tangible? Either the IT job is outrageously overpriced or the engineering job is outrageously undervalued. Which is it employers? Maybe it is both, but the shortage will continue until salaries for engineering jobs join the 21st century.

    Wake up manufacturing! It is no longer a matter of turning a handle in a factory any more. Modern machine tools are VERY complicated. If you think it is so easy, go down to the shop floor and try to run one yourself without crashing it. Better yet, have your entry level IT guy go down and run it. How can you rely on your technical manufacturing people so much to run your machine tools that cost anywhere from $350K – $1M and still only want to pay them $13.75/hr? Do you really expect someone to be grateful for that opportunity?

    Dr. Die Cast (Bob) and Westernfan have both also hit on this. Westernfan said, “If these skilled labor jobs don’t offer attractive wages, benefits, and career stability, there will be very little demand for the training and education required to get these jobs regardless of who offers it.” Dr. Die Cast said, “When you have a training program coupled with a compensation package that recognizes the additional skills and efficiencies that can be achieved when that employee reaches new levels, they stay with you.” I, for one, most wholeheartedly agree with both of them.

    Finally, consider this: Maybe the most technically able personnel are already employed at a job whose wages already exceed the amount being offered by the employers who are complaining. Has anyone considered that? What would an employer have to do to lure a potential hire away? It’s obvious isn’t it?

    B. Taylor

  11. Thank you all. Many of you have offered some very insightful views.

    Please understand that I do not suggest that I know it all, nor do I include all of what little I do know. I can report, however, that the emphasis of in-house training has largely been supplanted by community colleges. Now, this is certainly not true for all manufacturers.

    Indeed, many continue to have robust in-house training programs that provide for a pipeline of talent. But I do believe that is the exception rather than the rule, hence what I wrote.

    The whole concept of a shortage of qualified skilled workers is probably quite accurate. However, to solve the problem will truly take a parternship between industry and education rather than abrogating one’s own responsibility in this area and pointing fingers.

    We owe this to the next generation. We owe it to our country if we are to remain a manufacturing nation. Ok, I’m getting off my soapbox. Thank you all again for your comments.

  12. If you are only referring to a a small portion of the manufacturing and process industry like CNC machining facilities, and only a percentage of that niche industry, like operators; it is easy to over look the deficiencies in our college education system, and come to the conclusion OJT is the primary solution.

    But if you are referring to all manufacturing industries like plastics, pharma, food, auto, assembly, etc. (and even the process industries like oil, gas and mining), and referring to all occupations within those industries like maintenance and engineering. Not just operators. The disconnect between what is taught in college and what companies need becomes much more evident and that OJT will only solve a small portion of the deficiency.

    A good example is my area of expertise. PLCs and troubleshooting. As PLCs/PACs control just about all machines in all industries and are used to aid in troubleshooting of our ever growing complex systems, it’s a no brainier that Industrial Engineering and Maintenance should include extensive PLC and troubleshooting training. Yet most colleges send their IE students out with little or no training in this area. Most that do, only teach theory and/or use outdated instructors and books. (In industrial automation, those older than 10 years are grossly out dated.)

    Another example of the disconnect, my best friend’s daughter is close to graduating. Was going to be an healthcare provider, now going to teach young handicapped children. Yet she came over the other day with virus on her laptop, no knowledge of safe usage of a computer, backing up and restoring, basic PC fundamentals. How could any college for any degree let student go that long without those basic and necessary skills. A disconnect from what is needed in today’s world, that is how. All need computer, marketing and communication skills as a minimum to survive in today’s world.

    The basic structure of our learning system needs updated, and with online learning the evolution is already beginning. Colleges will be more able to focus on topic and skills needed instead of just putting content in to fill a 4 year time slot, weather that knowledge will ever be used or not. The future of education will be degrees based on knowledge and skill, not time. employees will go back online every 5 years to update their degree with for new skills and technologies being used. Learning will become more of a constant process to keep up with the ever increasing evolution of technology in the industry and workplace. The education system, driven by demand will evolve to an ever changing, in expensive system, more attuned to current needs.

  13. Our culture has to make manufacturing as attractive as it does for being a lawyer, medical professional, computer programmer, etc. Decades of de-emphasizing manufacturing in this country are the root cause of the lack of a suitable domestic labor pool. Also there are salary issues.

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