Skilled Labor Force is Key Challenge
By Dr. SAMMIS WHITE,
Director UWM Center for Workforce Development
Posted on 6/22/07
We cannot win the bet on manufacturing unless we as
a region and a state work hard to help manufacturing
succeed. A key component is ensuring that we have
the needed work force.
Manufacturing has supported this
region for more than a century. It still is responsible
directly and indirectly for almost 40% of the region's
jobs. The industry's impact on the region is enormous
and will remain so, if we support it.
We have to recognize, however, that
some jobs will be lost due to global competition and
productivity increases, regardless of our efforts.
The region has lost 3,608 manufacturing jobs since
May 2005; many more will be lost without explicit
The most significant business
challenge, according to a recent Milwaukee 7 survey
of manufacturers in the region, is creating a sufficiently
large and skilled labor force. Regional manufacturers
today are facing shortages of both skilled and unskilled
production workers. Some firms also are facing difficulty
in finding engineers for both product development and
process development and refinement. Other firms have
trouble finding management talent. All shortages must
One contributing factor is the retirement
of manufacturing workers. The baby boom generation
is currently aged 41 to 62. Older boomers, particularly
those who have been involved for decades in manufacturing,
are beginning to retire. Some local firms face upwards
of 25% of their work forces retiring in the next three
years. The average is closer to 10%. Retirements will
rise for several years as this population ages. Some
workers may elect to work more years, but evidence
suggests the number is small.
The challenge is finding replacements.
Several barriers exist. One is that the region's labor
force is projected to grow only 0.4% per year for
at least the next decade. That means few new entrants
to the labor force and competition among employers.
Another barrier is the lack of basic
work skills in the potential entry-level labor pool.
Employers today are sorting through literally hundreds
of applicants who lack basic workplace skills to find
a single job-ready person.
Compounding the problem is that
the history of boom and bust in manufacturing has
made the industry less appealing - potential workers
have purposely avoided taking jobs for fear they will
lose them in the next downturn.
Another factor is an increased need
for individuals with higher levels of basic skills.
Thirty years ago, jobs requiring no literacy began
to disappear. Today, workers increasingly need at
least eighth-grade math skills and literacy. Many
workers must also have basic computer skills.
For the region to win the bet placed
on manufacturing, it must take several explicit steps,
• Making the region's work
force development organizations, including Milwaukee
Mayor Tom Barrett's Office of Workforce Development,
work as one to provide seamless service to employers
and potential workers. This is exactly what the newly
created Regional Workforce Alliance is seeking to
do. Success requires great effort and cooperation.
• Developing new funding sources
for training, including employer and expanded state
and city contributions.
• Creating and expanding innovative
and highly responsive training programs that are built
on the boot-camp model. Quick responses to explicit
employer needs are essential; training time must be
• Creating and expanding innovative
"soft skills" training programs to assure
much higher levels of entry-worker placement.
• Improving the quality of
K-12 education to assure greater literacy, ability
with numbers and graduation rates.
• Developing and expanding
programs to interest more individuals in manufacturing
• Developing more and better
transportation solutions for workers to access the
many geographic areas home to manufacturing.
The region cannot afford to lose
This opinion first appeared
in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on 6/22/07