Manufacturing skills: How to make yourself more marketable

In this Big Picture Interview, reskilling and retraining isn’t only an employer’s responsibility, workforce development organization president says.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

Guy Loudon is president of Jane Addams Resource Corp., a Chicago-based not-for-profit that provides manufacturing skills training (free) for young people and unemployed adults looking to get into the field as well as customized training and apprenticeship development for companies looking to upskill their workforce. Loudon, who went to trade school and worked as a CNC machinist before joining JARC in 1995, talked with Plant Services’ Christine LaFave Grace about the changing manufacturing job environment and how workers can ensure they remain invaluable to their company.

PS: You’ve been involved in workforce development for more than 20 years. How have you seen manufacturing’s workforce challenges and the tactics used to address them change?

GL: I’ve always been fairly aware that manufacturing players are facing skills gaps both in terms of the availability of qualified entry-level people as well as among their existing workers. Some things have changed positively. I think important changes were made to our publicly invested workforce system; it’s increasingly oriented along sector lines and increasingly focused on middle-skills occupations and career paths. For a long time…the narrative was, “Manufacturing is dead; nobody’s going into it; it’s dead-end jobs; why would you train anyone for it?” I think the conversation very much has come around. It’s a conversation that includes not just manufacturing workers, who were always in the conversation, but now the publicly invested workforce system understands there’s a lot of opportunity.

The reason that employers are facing skills gaps today is the same reason that there is also opportunity in the manufacturing sector, which is that the technological innovations of the last 20 years have completely transformed the manufacturing scene. You have new manufacturing processes, new manufacturing technologies … things like robotic welding and fabrication, (and) the technological advances have created skills gaps.
Employers face skills gaps in terms of getting entry-level people, and they also face skills gaps among their existing workers, because they’re sinking an enormous amount of money into (buying) equipment but then they can’t run it, or they can only run it one shift, and they’d like to be running it three shifts. But there’s also the reason that there’s opportunity.

There’s not demand for people that don’t have technical skills—those jobs are in fact being eliminated. The whole narrative around manufacturing in the early 2000s was a truthful narrative in a sense; it was a narrative about obsolete jobs going out the back door, and they’re not coming back. What has instead been created … in a slightly smaller number but still a massively significant number (are) jobs that require middle-skills abilities, working with technology. I think both for entry-level workers and incumbent workers, requiring technical skills is absolutely vital to employment and career progression.

PS: In our 2018 workforce survey, we asked readers how concerned they are that automation will affect their role and responsibilities, and a majority see no impending threat. What’s your take, and do you see concern from prospective workers about the long-term viability of manufacturing jobs?

GL: In some sense, yeah, as technology continues to advance, some jobs that are still relevant today will be automated out. But that’s where training and skilling up needs to be not just something that employers understand and do all the time; it needs to be something that an employee who values his or her career is constantly thinking about.

PS: How am I constantly retraining myself to remain relevant where I work?

GL: We had a guy that graduated from our job-training programs back in 2010. I think he probably attained a NIMS (National Institute for Metalworking Skills) credential at that time. He reached out to us about a year ago and explained that he was trying to compete for promotions at his job. So on his own time, he began coming back to JARC and obtained more advanced industry credentials, NIMS Level 2. We didn’t get paid for it; he already graduated.

That’s an example of someone who worked hard to get where he is, but he realized that continuing to progress meant he’d have to work on his own time and put in his own effort and achieve more credentials. It wasn’t him waiting passively for his employer to recognize his abilities; he said: “What can I do in my spare time? I can go back to JARC and get some more credentials.”

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