Dean Barber

Heresy: Just How Real is the Skills Gap?

In Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 7:26 am

I wish I could claim a good portion of the ideas or concepts that I espouse as my own, as originating with me, but that would be a lie. That would be wrong. Then again, I am a consultant.

But the fact of the matter is that few of us are true trailblazers in the original thought department. Generally, we will take ideas that we hear from others and adopt and modify to our own liking. It’s a shake and bake process for sure.

Some of us don’t even go that far. We merely post links on social media sites such LinkedIn and Twitter when we read something that we think is sufficiently important or interesting. That doesn’t take much thought really. I guess it tells others that we are at least reading.

“Hey, here’s an article about how three-toed sloths could provide a cure for cancer.” Link.

Now I might read that one.

Occasionally, however, I will come up with a novel idea. I am thinking about naming, for purposes of project work only, mind you, different portions of a 700 acre industrial park after the local economic developer’s dogs and cats.

It’s obvious that she loves her animals, so what better way than to refer to that field in the southwest quadrant as “Binky” or “Fred.” It just might make the site certification project that we’re about to embark on a little less intimidating. We’ll see.

Last week, I was in Brunswick, Ga., in my role as the all-knowing, sage-like consultant. The local economic developer, a very talented individual and a friend, had me onstage with another all-knowing site selection consultant who saw the world quite differently from me, which was probably good from the standpoint of our audience. But my friend challenged us to determine what might differentiate his community from that of others.

My message was simple and Yoda-like. “Invest in yourself, Luke. Use the Force.”

The local newspaper never saw the wisdom in that, but they spelled my name right.

Picking Up the Slack

It has been my view for a while now, based on my readings and firsthand interviews, that many more manufacturing companies do not offer in-house training programs as much as they once did.

Part of that is no doubt a cost issue. Set aside training within a manufacturing operation would entail removing people from the production process, which could prove to be very costly.

But it is increasingly clear many manufacturers operate are under the mistaken premise that it is somebody else’s job to train their workforce. That somebody else is typically the local community college, which may or may not be well plugged into the needs of the local business community.

Now please understand that I view any technical school or community college that attempts to meet the needs of its business community as a great asset for that particular community. I have recently run across some very first-rate efforts in Mount Pleasant, Texas, and in Brunswick, where again I spent a few days last week.

In both communities, educators are exposing and offering young people a path toward a career in manufacturing as an alternative to the traditional four-year college degree. In Mount Pleasant, it’s happening at its new Industrial Technology Training Center. In Brunswick, high school students can go to the three-year-old Golden Isle Career Academy, whereas graduates can enroll in the Altamaha Technical College,

This is good stuff. Both Mount Pleasant and Brunswick are investing in their human resources, which can only bear fruit. This is the Force that I was talking about.

This does not, however, abrogate the responsibilities of manufacturers to train their own, despite the good and worthy efforts of economic developers and educators. Manufacturers, too, have to step up to the plate not only with their own in-house efforts but welcome high school educators and guidance counselors within their plant walls to educate the educators about what a modern manufacturing environment is all about.

Even if local manufacturers take such a proactive role in developing a true partnership with local educators, you then still have to ask if classroom curriculum alone will ever be a full substitute for on-the-job, hands-on training. Is it realistic for employers, particularly manufacturers, to expect that a newly hired tech school graduate, or anyone for that matter, to take a new job with no needed ramp-up time?

These are the questions being posed by Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Based on my own experiences and what I have discerned to be true on the ground, I think the good professor may be onto something, as it is apparent to me that many manufacturers are no longer offering the kind of in-house training that they once did.

And then they lament about not being able to find the right job candidates at a time when there are more unemployed people in this nation than employed in our manufacturing sector.

Crazy Talk, Heresy

Think about that for a moment. Certainly, not everyone should or could go into manufacturing environment for a job. That’s a given. If nothing else, it takes aptitude and desire. But are some employers being irrational about what is expected in terms of skill sets if they are not willing to bite the bullet in terms of training? In other words, and I know this is heresy what I am about to suggest, but could some of this “skills gap,” which we hear so much about, actually be contrived? Could some employers be contributing to the problem?

Cappelli:If employers really are willing to leave a position open for months and months while they keep searching, rather than spend a week or so training somebody, or, just give them a week or so of ramp-up time, they’re doing something wrong.”

Last month, I wrote about Bison Gear, a Chicago-area-based company that invests in its human resources knowing there will be beneficial payback down the line in terms of productivity and quality. See link:

I was very pleased and gratified to tell that story. But I could not help but wonder if Bison Gear might be the exception to the rule. I’m not sure. I just don’t know. I wish I did. Did you hear that? A consultant who said he did not know. You may want to underline that.

Death by Software

In his writings for the The Wall Street Journal and in his new book called “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs,” Cappelli also suggests that application tracking software that many companies employ could be contributing to the problem.

“For every story about an employer who can’t find qualified applicants, there’s a counterbalancing tale about an employer with ridiculous hiring requirements,” he told the Journal. In many companies, software has replaced recruiters, he writes, so “applicants rarely talk to anyone, even by email, during the hiring process.”

An HR executive in Philadelphia told Cappelli that as an experiment, he (the HR exec) applied for his own job, only to learn that he was rejected or rather screened out by his company’s application tracking software.

“Most systems, for example, now ask potential applicants what wage they are seeking — and toss out those who put down a figure higher than the employer wants. That’s hardly a skill problem,” Cappelli said. “Meanwhile, applicants are typically assessed almost entirely on prior experience and credentials, and a failure to meet any one of the requirements leads to elimination. One manager told me that in his company 25,000 applicants had applied for a standard engineering job, yet none were rated as qualified.”

Cappelli told me the same story about 25,000 applicants for one job when I interviewed him a few months ago. And no one was qualified? Really? Is that a skills gap or a reality gap?

Mind you, I know that some companies do and will go to great expense and effort to bring in an experienced and qualified skilled technician for their shop floor. Dave Erickson, president of Brunswick-based Haven Integrated Tube Processing Systems, said his company hired a staffing firm to find a precision machinist, who subsequently was located in the Midwest and made the move to Brunswick.

Erickson, who serves as chairman of the Brunswick & Glynn County Development Authority, said such extreme measures were called for because his company was not finding the person with specialized knowledge locally. I’m sure this happens with some frequency nationwide.

We’re Not Germany But

But for most manufacturers, the trigger can be pulled locally if they are only willing to invest time and money to bring the job candidate along via in-house training. I hesitate to mention Germany, but I will.

Yes, I know we are not Germany, but I think we can learn from Germany and its established manufacturing apprenticeship programs that it continues to nurture. Germany did not sustain the devastating job losses in manufacturing that we did during the first decade of this century. Could there possibly be a correlation? You think?

My message to Brunswick is the same to any community. Invest in yourself. Invest in yourself in terms of human resources and invest in yourself in terms of infrastructure. You do this and you are building a better business climate. You are building a future for the next generation.

While the message is simple, the doing is not. The doing is always the hard part. Which is why Yoda flew back home to Texas.

Dean Barber is the principal/owner of Barber Business Advisors, LLC., a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at Please visit our website at

  1. Thanks Mr.Barber, Very well put. I think somewhere along the way this outsourcing of training has taken away the true identity of the company and what defines it as being different.
    When your workforce is trained by “specialist in the field” they sometimes take on the pride of that training component rather than the firm that is building a loyal team that sets them apart from the competition.

  2. Dean,
    I have worked on several workforce development initiatives to train workers in the manufacturing sector, including a several million dollar training initiative funded by the Dept of Labor. The quantitative and qualitative data was quite easy to gather and was the basis for our call for funding a pilot workforce training program.
    If everyone agrees there is a major skills gap, then it is the government’s job to fix it. Right? Manufacturers and the underemployed then look to training grants and subsidies to fund a good share of the solution. The bigger the problem, the more public money and community resources you throw at it. So I guess there is a benefit to ratcheting it up a bit.
    I have to believe that we all would benefit from more personal and private sector responsibility in job training and for that matter, most aspects of our daily lives.

  3. Is it a coincidence that I read your blog after finishing two of three days conducting in house soft skills training at my new employer, a small manufacturing Company?
    I don’t think so. I am happy to see that Fusion OEM, also a Chicago based manufacturing company, is on the right track to meeting the “skills gap” in the manufacturing industry.
    While technical training may be a critical part of our employee development and applicant requirements, Fusion goes one step further in our training philosophy by including soft skills training in addition to technical skills training.
    The soft skills training is provided in house and creates a more positive working environment, increased productivity and retention of our human capital. Coupled with the technical skills training, provided in house in partnership with local technical schools, Fusion has made the decision to investment in the company’s future by investing in our employees.
    Spending 17 years in the hospitality industry before making the move to manufacturing I see the value of in house skills training. This is common in hospitality and has proven to increase retention rates, employee engagement, and overall customer experience. I am encouraged to see Fusion and the manufacturing industry in general adopt similar training initiatives to creatively meet staffing and retention needs.
    Your blog reinforces my belief and Fusion’s perspective that public private partnerships and internal investment in human capital will result in highly skilled, well rounded employees, who are engaged in the Company’s mission and take pride in what they do and where they do it.
    Thanks for sharing!

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