Experts: Manufacturing skills gap is growing worse

Machines are sitting idle at JBM Envelope Co. in Lebanon because the manufacturer can’t find qualified workers to fill the job openings available.

However, the likelihood of the company finding enough qualified people to hire is dim unless, top leaders are realizing, they take the matter into their own hands, said Chief Operating Officer Dan Puthoff.

Friday, Oct. 2, marked the fourth annual nationally-recognized Manufacturing Day. But the problem that launched the industry effort to bring attention to job opportunities in manufacturing is only growing, according to a joint study by The Manufacturing Institute, an industry-associated nonprofit, and Deloitte, a firm providing financial and business consulting services.

An improving economy and baby boomer generation retirements are expected to create 3.5 million manufacturing sector job openings over the next decade nationwide, according to the study results. However, the widening gap of workers missing the mechanical and social skills to do the jobs means 2 million of those positions are expected to go unfilled, according to the organizations’ research. The findings are based on surveys and analysis.

By comparison, 600,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs went unfilled in 2011, according to the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte.

“We have more work than we have people right now,” Puthoff said.

JBM Envelope was founded in 1985 and specializes in production of open-end envelopes used for bank teller drive-thru windows, parking violation tickets, flower and vegetable seed packets and other niches. Goals are to also grow a packaging division. About 140 employees work at the Warren County manufacturer today on Henkle Drive, but there are more than 10 job openings, including some positions that have sat empty for months, Puthoff said.

Puthoff admitted the business was waiting for a development agency or educational institution to take action on the workforce issues. Now he’s realizing, his company and others like JBM can’t wait anymore.

“I think we need to fix this problem for ourselves,” he said.

“If we could market better to local high schools and have them at least get a glimpse of what is possible for them, that might go a long way to fixing the problem at least at JBM,” he said. “I think it’s such a monumental task that it really needs to be done at the grassroots level by companies like ourselves.”

The research shows the skills gap hasn't hit bottom yet, said Carolin McCaffrey, chief liaison officer for Festo of Mason, where the German-based industrial company recently completed construction of a new 200,000-square-foot, $50 million Regional Service Center. The site conducts manufacturing, distribution and training. Not only does Festo make automation components, it provides other manufacturers industrial education and training services.

“When you talk to companies in the area … that’s the number one issue they bring up is workforce challenges,” McCaffrey said.

However, manufacturing employers have a bad reputation years in the making to reverse in the minds of high school graduates — and their parents — to convince them to pursue careers in the field, McCaffrey said.

In addition to technical skills such as welding and industrial maintenance, behavioral skills such as showing up to work on time, being orderly and reliable are needed too, she said.

Promoting the industry as a career option and creating career paths requires a team effort between industry, educators, workforce experts and community partners, she said.

“In our opinion manufacturers have to take a responsibility here,” she said.

A manufacturing job at JBM offers benefits, a 40-hour work week and entry-level pay starting at $10.50 to $11 an hour plus more for second shift, Puthoff said.

Statewide, the number of manufacturing workers has shrank 35 percent from over 1 million employees in 2000 to about 663,000 in 2013, the most recent information available, according to data from Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Over that same time, the average annual wage grew 31 percent to $55,733 a year.


Several efforts are underway to build a more-skilled manufacturing labor pool.

For example, Ohio Department of Higher Education, Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow, and the Ohio Governor's Office of Workforce Transformation announced Sept. 14 the creation of a Manufacturing Careers Council for the state. The industry-led group will further develop career pathways into manufacturing for youth and adults.

Later in October, Festo and TechSolve, a nonprofit that provides manufacturing industry consulting, are inviting area manufacturers and educational partners to meet about launching a two-year apprenticeship program in Ohio. Meeting organizers are seeking input on curriculum, program structure, time frames and funding.

Middletown City Schools just started this new school year a College and Career Readiness program, said Bunny Brooks, one of the initiative’s teachers and coordinators.

Seventh-graders now take a careers class about planning, organization, good decision making and study skills. Ninth-graders have a career exploration class about critical skills, time management and employment skills. Junior year students are learning more about their post-high school choices such as certificate programs, workforce training or college, and about test preparation depending on what path they follow, Brooks said.

Next year, the program will be expanded to high school seniors and offer them an internship at local businesses, Brooks said.

Other topics such as financial literacy and professional letter writing are also covered. The goal is to equip students with attributes they need to be successful no matter what they pursue after graduation including the military, college or university, certificates, or work, she said.

“The goal is that every child graduates and walks out the doors ready for their next adventure and that means you have to have critical skills… time management skills, you have to understand the perspective of the employer and the school,” she said.

A group of Middie students toured AK Steel’s research center on Curtis Street in Middletown Friday for Manufacturing Day.

Courses on career readiness will eventually become required curriculum statewide, said Brooks, adding the Middletown school district wanted to be more proactive.

“Our program is open to everything. We need good plumbers. We need good employees. We need kids with critical thinking skills. Regardless of what you go into… you have to be able to solve critical thinking problems,” she said.

“We’re trying to meet all the needs.”