Today, the high-technology in manufacturing is not yet adapted to the skills, or lack thereof, of large numbers of the work force.
High school teacher Scott Bruening encourages his students to pursue blue-collar jobs in manufacturing, something that's much less common now than it was 30 years ago.Evidently, new manufacturing technologies are sufficiently knowledge-intensive that it may be a few years before developing countries are able to adapt the same Fordist manufacturing techniques that made people with few work skills productive enough to compete jobs away from the already industrialized countries.
One reason is that, nationwide, more than 600,000 skilled-trades jobs remain open because of a shortage of qualified applicants, according to Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd., which provides audit, tax, consulting and financial services to companies in more than 150 countries.
It's one of the top-five issues for manufacturers, according to Deloitte, especially as 10,000 Americans a day turn 65 and companies haven't attracted enough young talent to replace their retirees.
Bruening teaches auto mechanics and other shop classes at Waukesha North High School.
Those programs are making a comeback, he said, as more students realize they can lead to a good career.
"It's a daily conversation we have," Bruening said.
Worldwide, more than 10 million manufacturing jobs cannot be filled because of the growing skills gap and because the jobs have become technically more demanding, Deloitte said in a recent report.
In the race to future prosperity, nothing will matter more than talent, said Tim Hanley, the Milwaukee-based U.S. process and industrial products leader for Deloitte.
Companies such as Super Steel LLC have grown their own talent through skilled-trades classes.At the same time, much of Wisconsin, and the Rockford area of Illinois, there has been an industrial tradition of blue collar aristocrats (welding, tool and die making, pattern-making, carpentry) that is harder to outsource than the assembly-line factories that hired people for their muscle only. Perhaps if school administrators understand this tradition, they'll be less likely to treat the trades as a dumping ground for burnouts and troublemakers.
"If somebody has a good work ethic, we can teach them how to weld," said Mark Rutkowski, Super Steel's marketing and sales director.
Even with waves of retirements, there's some hope the skills gap has narrowed with increased enrollment in technical colleges and with high schools placing more emphasis on manufacturing careers.
"For a long time, there was a real block in education that just cut off manufacturing as a 'nothing' career with no future," said Paul Rauscher, president of EMT International, a Green Bay company that builds equipment for the paper, packaging and other industries.
There are still too many high school students graduating with no career goals, said Jim Golembeski, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board in Green Bay.
"There is either complete ignorance about manufacturing careers in many school systems or an outright hostile attitude," he said.